The French Navy After 1815 Part I

In the post-1815 era the French Navy was employed on numerous overseas operations, supporting French colonial expansion or in the service of foreign policy objectives. In 1837-38, for example, France demanded reparations from Mexico for the sufferings of its expatriate citizens caught up in Mexico’s political upheavals. Failing to obtain satisfaction, France sent a squadron of frigates and smaller vessels to bombard the fortress of San Juan de Ulua (Saint Jean d’Ulloa) at Veracruz on 27 November 1838, which surrendered. It was an early outing for Paixhans’ new shell guns, and combined with mortar fire from bomb vessels, their success against strong stone-built fortifications took naval observers by surprise. This print is after a painting by Théodore Gudin.

A eyewitness pencil drawing from the sketchbook of Captain George Pechell Mends, RN depicting the fifteen-strong French fleet rendezvousing with the British in Besika Bay on 14 June 1853, prior to the joint squadrons entering the Black Sea. As a naval officer Mends meticulously recorded the details of the French ships, which he listed (from the head of the line, right to left) as: Ville de Paris 130 Vice Flag, Sané [paddle frigate], Jupiter 90, Bayard 100, Caton, Henri IV 100, Magellan, Valmy 130 screw Rear Flag, Napoleon screw 90, Mogador, Montebello 120, Charlemagne screw 90.

1816 to 1830: Rebuilding a Fleet

The French navy emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in a gravely weakened condition. It had lost almost a third of its ships of the line in the fall of Napoleon’s empire. Its personnel were in disarray because of a shortage of seamen and the return from exile of many royalist officers. It had no money, because France was bankrupt from the war and had to pay an enormous indemnity to the victors before their troops would leave her soil. Most important, its naval policy had not worked: after 22 years of concerted French efforts to destroy the British navy and merchant marine, at 1 January 1815 Britain had 214 ships of the line built and building and a merchant marine that was larger and more prosperous than ever, while France was left with a navy and a merchant marine that had been all but driven from the seas.

The navy’s main remaining assets were its ships and its administrative structure, but the ships disappeared rapidly. In mid-April 1814 the navy still had a large force of 104 ships of the line and 54 frigates afloat or under construction. By August this had fallen to 73 of the line and 42 frigates, due primarily to the surrender of ships located in European ports and building in shipyards outside France’s new borders. By late 1819 the fleet had shrunk to 58 of the line and 34 frigates afloat or on the ways, most of the others having been found to be too rotten to be worth repairing. In 1817 the navy estimated that, at this rate of decay, the fleet would disappear completely in ten years.

In response Pierre Barthelémy, Baron Portal, Minister of Marine from 1818 to 1821, developed the Programme of 1820, the first of the comprehensive plans that shaped the evolution of the navy during the next forty years. This programme defined the composition of a realistically attainable fleet, set a target date for its completion, and determined the amount of money required per year to meet the target. In its final form, promulgated in 1824, the programme provided for a fleet of 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates afloat. Portal calculated that this force could be created in ten years with an annual budget of 65 million francs (of which 6 million were for the colonies). He secured a political consensus to work towards this fiscal goal, even though only 50 million francs could be provided in 1820.

Portal’s programme took advantage of the few weaknesses that could be seen in Britain’s naval position. It reversed the traditional relationship between battleships and cruising ships in the fleet – as recently as 1814, France had had twice as many ships of the line as frigates. The new programme emphasised frigates to exploit the enormous problems that Britain would face in trying to defend worldwide trade and colonies. It retained a battle fleet, not to stand up to Britain alone, but to serve as a nucleus for an anti-British coalition fleet. This battle fleet was also designed to ensure that France would face no other maritime challenges: if she could not be number one, she could at least be an undisputed number two.

Refinements were soon made to the programme. The navy realised that ships left on the building ways, if properly ventilated and covered by a protective shed, would last almost indefinitely without decaying and would also have a longer service life after launching because their timbers would be better seasoned. Equally important, maintaining ships in this way was highly economical. The navy eventually decided that a third of the planned 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates would not be launched but would be kept complete on the ways. An additional 13 battleships and 16 frigates would be on the ways at less advanced stages of construction. These decisions led to a large increase during the 1820s in the number of building ways in the dockyards and in the number of ships laid down on them. At the same time the navy’s ordinary budget slowly increased, finally reaching the 65 million franc goal in 1830.

One reason the French navy survived the lean years after the Napoleonic Wars was the constant demand for its services. Within a few years naval stations were established in the Antilles, the Levant, and off the east coast of South America, and others were later created in the Pacific and in the Far East. Reoccupation and development of the few colonies left to France was given high priority. One of the navy’s most famous shipwrecks occurred when the frigate Méduse was lost in 1816 while leading a force to reoccupy Senegal. A few small ships were assigned to each of the reoccupied colonies for local duties. Among these were the navy’s first two steamers, Voyageur and Africain, built for Senegal in 1819. Scientific activities were also prominent. In 1820 (a relatively typical year), one corvette was in the process of circumnavigating the globe, two ships were surveying the Brazilian coast, three were producing definitive charts of the French coast, and one was charting the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

A series of crises gave the navy some new operational experience. In 1823 French troops invaded Spain to put down a revolution which had begun in 1820. Over 90 ships including four ships of the line supported this operation. In 1827, during the Greek war for independence, a French squadron joined British and Russian forces in annihilating the Turco-Egyptian fleet in the Battle of Navarino. In 1830, following several years of diplomatic disputes, the navy landed an army and took the city of Algiers. The invasion force included 11 ships of the line and 25 frigates.

Less sensational activities, including support for French occupation troops in Spain, Greece, and Algeria, large diplomatic missions to Haiti in 1825 and Brazil in 1828, and an expedition to Madagascar in 1829, created constant demands for additional ships and men. The active fleet of 76 ships planned in the 1820 budget exceeded the number of ships in commission in 1789, and unanticipated requirements increased the number of ships actually used during all or part of 1820 to 103. By 1828 this figure had exactly doubled to 206 ships, and it remained at this high level during the extensive operations in 1829 and 1830.

1830 to 1840: Retrenchment and Experimentation

In 1830 a liberal revolution brought to power King Louis-Philippe. The new king’s backers believed that high government spending was one of the main causes of economic distress and political disorder, and they immediately imposed major budget cuts. The navy, which had just reached the expenditure level of 65 million francs per year called for by the Programme of 1820, was ordered to cut its budget request for 1831 to 60.5 million francs. The restrictions on spending continued in effect throughout the 1830s, and the ordinary navy budget did not again reach 65 million francs until 1838. Even more serious, extraordinary appropriations, which had funded the remarkable expansion of the navy’s operations in the 1820s, were even more severely limited and did not reach the level of 1828-30 again until the crisis of 1840.

The impact of these cuts was particularly evident in the shipbuilding programme because the navy’s other expenses, notably personnel and operations, were relatively inflexible. In late 1834 the navy increased the proportion of Portal’s fleet to be kept on the ways from one-third to one-half to allow the dockyards to begin a few new ships with funds that otherwise would have been used to maintain some older ships. This change, along with other changes made to Portal’s programme during the 1820s, was formalised in a new programme promulgated by royal ordinance on 1 February 1837. The programme also confirmed the navy’s need for two ship classes, the 74-gun ship of the line and the 3rd Class frigate, which some politicians wanted to abolish.

Despite the new programme, the strength of the fleet declined in the late 1830s. The programme called for 53 ships of the line and 66 frigates afloat and on the ways, but between December 1834 and December 1839 the total number of battleships fell from 51 to 46 while frigates fell from 60 to 56. The deficit was in the number of ships under construction, a situation which was aggravated by the fact that operational requirements kept the number of frigates afloat substantially higher than in the new plan.

The distribution of the fleet during the 1830s remained essentially as it had been at the end of the 1820s. The station cruisers remained busy, and were augmented by special forces sent in response to disputes with Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, and Argentina. An expeditionary force bombarded the fortifications of Veracruz in Mexico in 1838. The South Atlantic station began a blockade of Buenos Aires in the same year, and a special expedition finally secured a treaty from the Argentines in 1840. In Africa, the navy took possession of the mouth of the Gabon River in 1839 and subsequently established a few trading posts in the Gulf of Guinea. The navy was particularly active in scientific expeditions in the late 1830s, undertaking several circumnavigations of the globe.

The navy was also very active in Europe. In 1831 a squadron fought its way up the Tagus to Lisbon in a dispute with Portugal. Another squadron supported Belgian independence against the Dutch between 1831 and 1833, and another occupied Ancona following insurrections in Italy in 1832. Naval stations in Spain were re-established in 1834 in response to the Carlist revolution in Spain. In 1836 and 1837 a fleet was maintained off Tunis to prevent interference with the French occupation of the interior of Algeria. In 1838 this force was shifted to the Levant as relations between the Sultan of Turkey and his nominal vassal, Mohammed Ali of Egypt, approached breaking point.

1840 to 1852: Ferment

The Levant crisis gave the French navy its biggest test between 1815 and the Crimean War in 1854. War between Turkey and Egypt broke out in 1839, generating a crisis between France, which supported Mohammed Ali, and Britain, which supported Turkey. The French Levant squadron reached an average level of 16 ships, including 9 ships of the line, during the first half of 1840. It also reached a level of operational readiness that was admired even by British naval officers. In the meantime, the French decided to launch three ships of the line from its reserve of ships on the ways and take other measures to raise the number in commission to the twenty called for under the Programme of 1837.

Despite this demonstration of French naval strength, the British in July 1840 succeeded in forming a coalition with Austria, Prussia, and Russia to force Mohammed Ali to withdraw. An intense diplomatic crisis between Britain and France ensued, but France found it had no choice but to back down. The British squadron in the Levant was larger than the French (it contained about 14 ships of the line to the French 9) and it was backed by much greater resources at home in money and men. France tried to launch and commission 12 frigates then on the ways but suspended the effort when it realised it would not be able to find enough seamen to man them until the fishing fleet returned from the Grand Banks at the end of the year.

The crisis showed that the naval policy followed by France since 1815 had grave weaknesses that could no longer be ignored. It demonstrated that the fleet of the 1837 programme could not cope with the British battle fleet in cases such as 1840 in which France had no allies. It also showed that the policy of retaining ships on the ways for rapid launch during a crisis was an illusion. On the positive side, the crisis led to a relaxation of the fiscal constraints on the navy-it was clear that the navy’s requirements had outgrown Portal’s standard 65 million franc budget.

In the 1840s the navy focused its attention on steam as an alternative way to offset British sea power. The programme of 1837 had included 40 steamers of 150nhp and above, but since then much larger steamers had become practicable. In 1842 the French navy established a programme for a steam navy that would parallel the sail navy. It was to include 40 combat steamers: five `steam frigates’ of 540nhp, fifteen of 450nhp, and twenty `steam corvettes’ of 220nhp. The smaller ships already on hand (mostly the 160nhp Sphinx class) remained useful for messenger, transport, and colonial duties, and thirty were included in the programme.

At first, not much progress was made with the new programme because of lack of construction facilities and money, but studies of the role of steam in the fleet continued. The most famous was a pamphlet published in 1844 by François Ferdinand Philippe Louis Marie d’Orleans, Prince de Joinville, a son of the king who had chosen the navy as his career. Joinville claimed that steam would allow France to offset British supremacy in numbers by concentrating its forces at a point of its choosing, overwhelming local opposition, and either ravaging the coast or landing an army. His pamphlet triggered a major naval scare in Britain and the construction of many new fortifications along the British coast. Joinville went on to direct a commission whose work led to a new steamer programme at the end of 1845. This programme increased the size of the planned steam fleet to 100 ships, including 10 frigates and 20 corvettes.

Joinville wanted steam frigates to be true combatants, with an armament of 30 large guns and engines of 600nhp or more. His steam corvettes were also to be combatants, but were expected to serve primarily as avisos. They were to have around eight large guns and engines of 400nhp. The plans for the frigate Isly and the corvette Roland conformed to these guidelines. The remaining 70 ships were to carry out the now-traditional messenger and transport duties of steamers and were assigned two guns at most and engines ranging from 300 to 90nhp.

The main strength of the navy remained in the sailing fleet, however. In the mid-1840s Parliament became concerned about its deterioration. The Minister of Marine, Vice-Adm. Ange-René-Armand, Baron de Mackau, took advantage of the opportunity and presented a new naval programme in 1846. In essence, it combined Portal’s sail fleet and Joinville’s steam fleet in a single programme which was to be achieved in seven years with the navy’s regular budgets and special appropriations totalling 93 million francs.

The programme contained several innovative features, all involving steam. While drawing up the programme, the navy decided to reduce the number of ships of the line under construction over and above the programmemed 40 from 13 to 4, on the grounds that the progress of steam made it prudent not to build up too big a reserve of these expensive ships. (The corresponding reserve of 16 sail frigates was retained.) It also decided to adopt one of Joinville’s recommendations and give part of the sailing fleet auxiliary steam propulsion. Parliamentary pressure caused the navy to increase the horsepower of these ships, and the final plan (not incorporated in the royal ordinance) called for four ships of the line with 500nhp engines, four frigates with 250nhp machinery, and four corvettes with 120nhp auxiliary machinery. This decision led, through many permutations, to the conversion of the ships of the line Austerlitz and Jean Bart and the construction of the corvettes Biche and Sentinelle. Parliamentary pressure also caused the navy to add to the programme two floating batteries of around 450nhp in response to the British blockships of the Blenheim type. These, however, were soon cancelled.

The execution of the Programme of 1846 was interrupted by the revolution of 1848, in which Louis-Philippe was overthrown and replaced by a second republic. The revolution ushered in a new period of fiscal retrenchment, which severely slowed down naval shipbuilding. The budgets of 1847 and 1848 had each included the planned annual instalments of 13.3 million francs, but the 1849 budget included only 2.7 million for the programme and later budgets included nothing. By the time naval activity revived in the early 1850s, further advances in steam technology had rendered the Programme of 1846 obsolete.

The navy’s operations in the 1840s were concentrated first and foremost in the Mediterranean. The Levant crisis of 1840 was succeeded by a series of operations associated with the conquest of North Africa, including an expedition led by Joinville which bombarded the Moroccan port of Mogador in 1844. A new crisis in Portugal caused the French to send another expedition to the Tagus in 1847. Elsewhere, Joinville in the frigate Belle Poule brought the ashes of Napoleon back to Paris from St. Helena in 1840. Expeditions were dispatched in 1842 and 1843 to occupy the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific, and French control was extended to the Society Islands in 1844. In 1843 the French occupied the islands of Nossi Bé and Mayotte off Madagascar, and a joint Anglo- French force bombarded Tamatave in 1845. In 1845 the French signed a treaty with Britain which required them to retain a force of 26 ships on the West African coast to help suppress the slave trade. Between 1845 and 1852 the navy was also involved in operations in Argentina, the dispute with that country having flared up again.

The 1848 revolution in France triggered revolutions throughout Europe, which kept the navy busy in European waters, especially in Sicily, at Rome, and in the Adriatic. Fiscal retrenchment, however, soon led to a substantial reduction in the number of ships in commission. Among the casualties was the West African station, which declined from 26 ships at the end of 1847 to its pre-treaty strength of around 8 ships at the end of 1849 and then to 3 ships at the end of 1851.

The French Navy After 1815 Part II

An Anglo-French squadron of steamers bombards Odessa in the Black Sea, 22 April 1854. Left to right, the attacking ships are: Terrible (RN), Vauban, Mogador, Sampson (RN), Descartes, Retribution (RN), Tiger (RN) and Furious (RN).

Impératrice Éugenie with the Escadre de la Méditerranée between May and December 1859. When this fleet anchored off Venice on 9 July 1859, without Impératrice Éugenie but with her sister Impétueuse, included the fast three-decker Bretagne, the fast 90-gunners Algésiras, and Arcole, and the corvette Monge, all of which are probably visible here. Impératrice Éugenie sailed in May 1860 for the Far East where she remained until 1867

1852 to 1861: Towards a New Fleet

On 2 December 1851 Louis Napoleon carried out a coup d’état which gave him control of the government and made him, a year later, Emperor Napoleon III. The new regime quickly embarked on a revolutionary transformation of the battle fleet from sail to steam, which it finally codified in 1857 in a new naval programme just before another technological revolution took place.

In early 1852, the first French screw ship of the line to run trials, Charlemagne, demonstrated that the large screw-propelled warship was a practical reality. At this time, the navy estimated that Britain had afloat or under construction 10 such ships compared to 3 for France. Shortly thereafter, the new French government substantially increased the funds available to the navy for shipbuilding in 1852 and 1853, and in mid-1852 the navy decided to use the funds to convert seven more ships of the line along the lines of Charlemagne.

In justifying this programme, the Minister of Marine (then Théodore Ducos) told his senior advisory council in May 1852 that he felt France’s strategy in a war with Britain should be to strike hard at British commerce while threatening a rapid, unexpected landing on the coasts of the United Kingdom. The need for speed and carefully coordinated operations ruled out the construction of additional sailing ships. Converted ships like Charlemagne could make a substantial contribution with their dependable speed of around 8 knots. (They were also a practical necessity, as they made use of existing materiel and could be completed more quickly than new ships.) Fast ships of the line like Napoléon would be even more appropriate, but the navy avoided committing itself to this type before the trials of the prototype. The sensational success of Napoléon in August 1852 caused the navy to start additional ships of the type as quickly as possible. Five new ships and one conversion (Eylau) were begun in 1853 alone.

In Britain, the return of a Bonaparte to absolute power in France aroused old fears and triggered a full-blown naval scare in 1852 and 1853. Between August and November 1852 the Admiralty responded to developments in France by ordering the conversion to steam of eleven additional ships of the line, and more soon followed.

Ironically, this period of rivalry soon gave way to a period of close cooperation as the two nations combined their efforts in the Crimean War against Russia. In September 1853 the fleets of the two powers entered the Dardanelles together, and they continued to coordinate their operations in the Black Sea and the Baltic until the end of the war in 1856. They also shared some of their latest technological developments, the British receiving the plans of the French armoured floating batteries and the French receiving plans of British gunboats.

In October 1853 Napoléon gave dramatic proof of the importance of steam by towing the three-decker sailing French flagship Ville de Paris up the Turkish straits against both wind and current while the British fleet had to wait for more favourable conditions. Subsequent operations reinforced the lesson that only screw steamers could be considered combatant warships. In October 1854, while preparing the list of construction work to be undertaken in 1855, the ministry of marine proposed converting to steam all 33 of its remaining sailing ships of the line in the next several years. One-third of the resultant fleet was to be fast battleships like Napoléon (including a few conversions like Eylau), and the remainder were to be conversions like Charlemagne. Conversions of existing ships of the line were carried out as quickly as the ships could be spared from war operations.

The Crimean War placed heavy operational demands on the navy. Fleets were required in both the Black Sea and the Baltic. The French used 12 ships of the line in the Baltic during 1854 and 3 in 1855; they used 16 in the Black Sea in 1854 and 31 during 1855 (including about 19 as transports). The principal naval engagements involving the French were all against fortifications: the capture of Bomarsund in the Baltic in August 1854, the bombardment of Sevastopol in the Black Sea in October 1854, the capture of Kinburn in the Black Sea in October 1855, and the bombardment of Sveaborg in the Baltic in November 1855. The bombardment of Sevastopol was carried out by ships of the line and was a failure – Napoléon, one of many ships damaged, was forced to withdraw after a shell produced a large leak in her side. In contrast, the bombardment of Kinburn exactly a year later made extensive use of technology developed during the war and was a success. The French armoured floating batteries proved practically impervious to the Russian shells, while groups of gunboats, mortar vessels, and armed paddle steamers also inflicted heavy damage on the defenders.

In May 1855 the Minister, Admiral of France Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, circulated to the ports a list of questions raised by the October 1854 memo regarding the composition of the battle fleet. In August 1855 a navy commission, formed at the Emperor’s direction to examine the responses, drafted a formal programme for the modernisation of the fleet. The key elements of its programme were a combat fleet of 40 fast battleships and 20 fast frigates and a fleet of transports large enough to transport an army of 40,000 men. While the combat fleet was being built, the navy was to rely on a transitional fleet of screw ships converted from sail, which was to be completed as quickly as possible. This plan called for the expenditure of 245 million francs in 13 years beginning in 1857. The commission was reconvened in December 1855 to consider the implications of the success of the armoured floating batteries at the bombardment of Kinburn in October. It completed the technical and fiscal details of the programme in November 1856, and the Emperor referred the plan to the Conseil d’Etat in January 1857 for study. Three changes were made during 1857. Two ship of the line conversions were deleted (Friedland and Jemmapes). The number of transports was reduced from 94 to 72, probably reflecting a decision to abandon all but five of the frigate conversions and instead convert some sailing frigates to steam frigates. The financial arrangements were also changed to provide for the expenditure of 235 million francs over 14 years beginning in 1858. The final programme was promulgated by imperial decree on 23 November 1857.

While refining the technical portion of the programme in late 1856, the navy’s engineers under Stanislas-Charles-Henri-Laur Dupuy de Lome, designer of Napoléon, had included a clause allowing the Minister of Marine to replace ship types in the programme with others equivalent in military strength and construction cost. Dupuy de Lome knew better than most how quickly the programme would become obsolete, because he was already working on the plans for the world’s first `armoured frigates’. In March 1858 the Minister (Hamelin) ordered the first three of these, including Gloire, and simultaneously cancelled construction of two fast 70-gun ships of the line, Desaix and Sébastopol, which had not yet been laid down and a proposed class of fast 40-gun steam frigates. By October 1858 the navy had decided that the new armoured frigates were not just equivalent but superior to line of battle ships. At the same time, it replaced the fast frigates in the programme with smaller `cruising frigates’. (Two similar `station frigates’, Vénus and Minerve, followed by a series of `armoured corvettes’, were eventually built in the 1860s.) The Programme of 1857 remained the legal basis for the modernisation of the French fleet to the end of the 1860s, but the ships built under it bore little resemblance to those in the initial 1855 proposal.

The navy saw considerable action in the 1850s besides the Crimean War. In 1851 a French force carried out a reprisal bombardment of the Moroccan port of Salé. In 1853 the navy occupied the Pacific island of New Caledonia. In 1855 the French in Senegal began to expand their control upriver into the interior of Africa. In 1856 Britain and France agreed upon joint operations for the revision of their treaties with China, and two joint naval and military campaigns were conducted before another treaty settlement was made in 1860. During this operation, the French occupied Saigon in 1859 and over the next few years took control of all of Cochinchina.

Elsewhere, the traditional Anglo-French rivalry was quick to revive. A French naval and military intervention in the Danube principalities after the Crimean War aroused British fears of a Franco-Russian alliance. The Franco-Austrian war of 1859, in which France helped Italy become independent, antagonised British conservatives as much as it delighted liberals. The French navy helped transport and supply the French armies in Italy and blockaded the northern Adriatic ports. Such activity focused British attention on the naval balance, and they found that France had reached near parity in fast steam ships of the line and had an advantage in the number of ironclad warships under construction. In February 1859 the Admiralty triggered the third major Anglo-French naval scare since 1844, which intensified in 1860-61 as France led the world into the ironclad era.


An Alfa on the surface, showing how her sail blends into her hull. A mast is raised forward of the windshield. When the masts were retracted they were covered over to minimize water flow disturbance over the sail structure. Although a titanium-hull submarine, the Alfa-like the Papa SSGN-was not a deep diver. (U. S. Navy)

There was a growing sense of unease in the West.

Russian maritime power was fast evolving into a giant whose intentions were an enigma, providing endless hours of debate for NATO intelligence analysts, but no definitive answers.

By 1973, the Soviet Navy was rapidly gaining on, if not edging ahead of, the Americans. A quarter of its 400 submarines were by now nuclear-powered. The USSR was building up to 15 nukes a year, while the USA could manage only an average of 4.5. It was estimated the Soviets would soon field more SSBNs than the USA.

American submarine construction yards declined while the Russians expanded theirs; the variety of Soviet boats increased rapidly.

They had managed six new designs of nuclear-powered submarine since 1963. The USA had sent only two new types to sea in the same period. Observing all this, a former Royal Navy officer tried to divine exactly why the Soviets were building so many. Commander Nicholas Whitestone, who at one time served in the Naval Intelligence Division, suggested there were three possibilities.

• the Soviets were preparing to refight the Battle of the Atlantic. In any war they would send out submarines to sink troop ships and supply vessels, depriving NATO of reinforcements and starving the West’s civilian populations.

• They wanted to have enough submarines to match and kill the Polaris boats (and also to attack American and British aircraft carriers).

• The Soviet Navy was a political weapon, to exert pressure on the West. Its burgeoning might was a means of underwriting Russia’s diplomatic moves.

The likely answer was that it was a mix of all three – ready to attack shipping, seek out enemy submarines, and intimidate the capitalists with its numbers and growing firepower.

While Whitestone pondered the big picture of the stand-off, other professional analysts scrutinised the boats themselves. What exactly was the Charlie Class cruise missile-armed submarine for? Attacking carriers? Or land targets? How exactly were the Charlie’s weapons guided to target? Until the day hostilities erupted, nobody in the West would know for sure, though efforts to provide answers would be made by submarines on intelligence-gathering missions.

The Soviet predilection for continuing investment in submarines that bordered on the obsolete puzzled a former British submarine captain, turned writer, Capt. J. E. Moore; he remarked sarcastically that it showed yet again how indifferent the Soviet Union is to heavy arms expenditure . . .’

The Soviets were also fielding the Delta II SSBN, with a submerged displacement estimated by Western sources to be 16,000 tons, as large as a small aircraft carrier. Such leviathans were sliding down the slipways in the early 1970s at a rate of seven a year.

Captain Moore issued a warning: ‘All these monster ships are being built at the vast complex at Severodvinsk [on the shores of the White Sea], which has a greater construction potential than all the submarine yards in the USA combined. The Deltas are in most respects the most potent warships ever operated.’

When it came to surface ship killers, by 1973 there were 15 Echo IIs in the Northern Fleet alone. While unsophisticated, they had their uses. Like other Soviet submarines that did not pass the West’s quality test, the Echos offered Admiral Gorshkov the benefit of decoying NATO away from the key units, such as SSBNs. Each Echo II would, he hoped, require thinly stretched NATO forces to exert themselves on the hunt. The most feared of the Soviet hunter-killers (at this time) was the Victor.

Around 20 of them were in service by the mid-1970s – thought to be capable of at least 33 knots dived. With their eight 21-inch tubes, a submerged displacement of 4,200 tons and a length of 285ft, it was reckoned their torpedoes were equal to Western tinfish.

The Achilles heel of the Victors, despite a highly streamlined, broad hull – indicating deep diving ability – was free flood holes in the outer casing. Water constantly flowing through them made a Victor much noisier than NATO hunter-killers, particularly when it became a burbling rush at speed. Still, Capt. Moore pointed out, ‘they are extremely fast and dangerous craft, able to sink virtually any kind of surface vessel’.

Across the Atlantic, Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the US Navy’s nuclear submarine force, reckoned the West had a lot to be worried about.

He believed the Soviets were creating other types of boats that were faster, could dive deeper and were quieter than ever. In 1969 the CIA received intelligence from what it described as ‘strollers’ who had spotted an intriguing new super-streamlined submarine taking shape in Leningrad, at the Sudomekh Yard on the banks of the River Neva.

American naval attachés twice made forays into forbidden areas around the shipyard. Somehow they managed to retrieve material, which they would later claim fell off the back of a lorry. It was sneaked back to laboratories in the USA for analysis.

Ironically, the most tantalising clue would ultimately be retrieved on American soil. A naval analyst working for the CIA teamed up with a US Navy researcher to call on a scrapyard in Pennsylvania that specialised in purchasing unusual scrap metals from the Soviet Union. After painstakingly examining every potentially relevant item on the site, the two men discovered a piece that seemed promising.

Etched into it was a series of numbers that began ‘705’. To expert eyes this was something very intriguing indeed. Analysis of the machined metal soon revealed it to be titanium and, as would subsequently be discovered, the mystery boat was known in the Soviet Navy as the Project 705 Lira.

At first, it was believed to be a new form of diesel boat.

A senior US Naval Intelligence submarine analyst named Herb Lord suggested, after studying photographs and other data, that it was a radically new form of SSN.

Lord maintained it was a ‘super submarine’ made from titanium.

With advanced weaponry and sensors, it could pose a serious threat to Western naval operations. He told colleagues and superiors the Soviets had – at least in this case – abandoned their cautious approach to submarine design – the incremental, career-preserving way of doing things. This boat was different.

Lord’s claims did not immediately take root. According to a recently declassified CIA case study, the sceptics in US naval intelligence circles maintained ‘the shaping and welding of heavy titanium hull sections, especially in the generally “dirty” shipyard atmosphere, was impractical, if not impossible’.

The idea of creating whole sections of a titanium submarine in the open air was too ridiculous – usually when titanium was welded it had to be carried out in specially enclosed areas filled with fire-retardant argon gas.

Nothing this big could be made from it, they said.

An entire submarine hull made from titanium?


Regardless of its powerplant or hull composition, a single unit of what would be labelled the Alfa Class by NATO was completed in 1970. What was her precise role?



It took several more years for Herb Lord’s analysis to prevail over the sceptics – and he actually retired before his views became accepted. The CIA analyst Gerhardt Thamm ultimately took up Lord’s cause and he confessed: ‘it became my mission to convince the US Navy that the Soviets were building high-threat submarines using advanced construction technology’.

While Rickover’s team believed the Soviets were improving submarine construction they, and others in the USA, remained very dubious about the Alfa being an SSN. They refused to believe it would be anything more than a dead-end experiment, whatever it was.

In reality one of the most revolutionary submarines ever constructed, the Alfa spotted moored at a fitting-out quay on the banks of the Neva in 1969 was merely a one-off prototype. There would ultimately be a class of six commissioned examples, whose capabilities chilled the blood of NATO commanders. The fastest and deepest-diving attack submarine the world had ever seen, the first Alfa was a rare and mysterious beast.

She was a product of the most brilliant minds in the Soviet submarine design world. Latter-day Norse gods had applied their knowledge of metallurgy to try and secure mastery of inner space for the Kremlin. Russian naval architects, scientists and mathematicians were brilliant, their products simply amazing.

With the Alfa – because they were hoping to achieve a massive leap ahead of the West – the Russians took their time about pushing the prototype to the limits. The roots of what would become the Alfa programme went back to the early 1960s, when the Holy Grail was the so-called Interceptor submarine.

A type of hunter-killer tailored to the flash-bang nature of any likely war, it would be able to hit hard and fast, then disappear. The new Delta Class SSBNs, armed with the SS-N-8 (Sawfly) missile, could bombard America from the comparative safety of the Greenland and Norwegian Seas. Any hunter-killer riding shotgun would not need long endurance, for the Bombers would be relatively close to home.

Such a fast deep-diving submarine could make quick forays in the hunt for surface and submerged targets. The Interceptor submarine could be small, with a modest crew, and also a minimal fit for sonar. Detection abilities of Maritime Patrol Aircraft and helicopters, or other elements of detection equipment (including seabed sensors), would aid the mission.

Generally the reason nuclear-powered submarines were so much bigger than diesels was the need for complex and extremely powerful machinery and powerplant. That in turn increased weight, which decreased speed. The answer was to keep the propulsion plant as small as possible while constructing the boat from lightweight material. The Soviet solution was a liquid-metal reactor while using titanium for the boat’s hull.

Titanium offers huge advantages, for not only is it much lighter than steel, but it is also extremely strong. It has a very low magnetic signature and is not so vulnerable to corrosion. Hard to obtain, and expensive, it does not have the same give as steel. This lack of elasticity under the extreme pressures experienced by deep-diving submarines meant it could crack more easily. Aluminium and manganese alloys were introduced to try and restore elasticity. Titanium was also difficult to bend into the radical, streamlined shape the Soviet naval architects devised for the space age Alfa. With an ultra-streamlined exaggerated hump for a fin, she looked like something conjured up by Arthur C. Clarke.

One Russian submarine officer who saw an Alfa under construction thought her lines stunningly beautiful. She was a work of art rather than a product of industry. On joining the Alfa’s crew, composed of the best and brightest the Soviet Navy could assemble, he was overcome with pride. He exulted: ‘I felt as if I had just discarded my tractor and boarded a spaceship.’

With six tubes and packing a maximum of 18 ASW missiles or torpedoes, the acceleration of the new wonder submarine was incredible. It could go from 6 to 42 knots in just 120 seconds. The Alfa had a remarkably small crew of just 45. Thanks to high levels of automation, it could be reduced to as few as 31.

The use of liquid metal for reactor coolant was extremely radical – and very dangerous. The US Navy had commissioned USS Seawolf in 1957 with a liquid-metal reactor. Not much more than a year later she was brought into a dockyard to have it removed and replaced with a pressurised-water reactor.

A major challenge was ensuring the liquid metal did not actually solidify, bringing the system crashing to a halt.

The Alfa had two compact reactors to offset that annoying tendency.

A major advantage of using liquid metal was that it did not become radioactive, so it wasn’t necessary for the steam-generating machinery it passed through to be clad in heavy (bulky) and expensive radiation shields.

The top turn of speed achieved by the Alfa with a five-bladed screw was phenomenal – up to 45 knots. Maximum diving depth was 2,460ft. This was more than twice any other contemporary Western or Soviet boat. The problem with such a high turn of speed – the fastest ever achieved by an SSN – was the noise, which was likened to a jet engine roar.

The prototype was worked hard, frequently clocking up those impressive high speeds, under huge pressure at great depth. There were several problems with hull cracking and reactor ‘freezes’. Pipework, torpedo launch equipment and even the compressed-air system were subjected to extreme stress. In 1974 the exhausted prototype was cut to pieces, allowing a full autopsy. The results were studied and adjustments made to both design and construction methods before a limited production run went ahead.

Admiral Gorshkov lavished attention and money on the Alfas – so expensive but highly capable, they were dubbed golden fish’. They were the elite of Russia’s submarine force. No wonder, for the Alfas appeared to offer technological parity and even superiority over the West.

The CIA’s Gerhardt Thamm eventually won his battle to convince the US Navy the titanium SSN was reality, confirming that Herb Lord (who had passed away in the meantime) was right. Thamm felt he proved ‘that the Soviets had indeed built a submarine that was “better than good enough’”. Despite huge costs, ‘the Soviets continued the Alfa project with tenacity unmatched by Western navies’.

The Americans were working on their 688 Class attack submarines (also known as Los Angeles Class). The first of these would be launched in 1974 and enter service in 1976, with another 37 commissioned by June 1989.

A major part of Britain’s attempt to respond would depend on safely proving and bringing into service another brand-new kind of SSN.


Peering through a glass darkly into the future.

China is busily accumulating sea power to make President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream come true. The dream is about making China great again after it suffered a long “century of humiliation” at the hands of seaborne conquerors punctuated by dynastic collapse and civil war. Greatness in the abstract need not alarm fellow Asian powers. It is the type of greatness Xi has in mind that vexes outsiders. Parts of China’s dream are innocuous or even mutually beneficial for Eurasia; these are welcome. Other parts, however, raise the possibility that a great China will be a domineering China.

It is the job of U.S. maritime strategy to temper the sinister aspects of China’s bid for greatness without quashing its benign aspects. To channel China’s dream toward temperance, U.S. leaders must understand and adapt. They must understand China’s maritime strategy, that is, while adapting to the new circumstances to which it has given rise. What should scholars and practitioners of American sea power take away from studying maritime China? First of all, the Chinese are industrious folk and tough competitors. Xi’s vision of the Chinese Dream amounts to a statement of political purpose along with an effort to summon political resolve. To all appearances it resonates with the audiences to which Xi means to appeal, namely the CCP and rank-and-file citizens.

A polity intent on fulfilling a common dream invests generously in policies, strategies, and implements of power designed to make it a reality. And it sustains that investment for a long time, if not forever. As Carl von Clausewitz counsels, a competitor that yearns ardently for its “political object” undertakes an effort of commensurate “magnitude,” as measured in lives, treasure, and resources. It presses the effort for an open-ended “duration.” The magnitude of an endeavor corresponds to the rate at which a competitor expends resources; duration means how long it keeps up the expenditure. Doing the arithmetic—multiplying rate by time—reveals that China is pursuing an enterprise of startling proportions.

And it could make good on its oceangoing project. Americans, accordingly, must resist the urge to deprecate China’s ingenuity, competitive fire, and steadfastness; far safer to regard challengers as peer competitors or spoilers until events prove otherwise. Past seafaring hegemons have yielded to the temptation to discount challengers. The allure of complacency is doubly strong if the hegemon has reigned supreme for decades while challengers boast meager records for nautical enterprise. In this sense a false reading of history breeds smugness. Russian admirals sneered at the IJN a century ago. The wages of condescension? Wreckage from two fleets strewn across Asian seafloors and the destruction of Russian sea power in the Far East for generations to come.

Nor are Russians the only offenders. U.S. Navy leaders love to tout the foresight of interwar strategists toiling at the Naval War College and other precincts. Yet American naval officers were slow to grasp that the IJN was a deadly foe in the making. They waved aside its capacity to develop the weaponry that Japanese aviators deployed to stunning effect in 1941–42. And not until Soviet task forces started voyaging throughout the seven seas, including historic American preserves, did the U.S. Navy start taking the Soviet Navy seriously during the Cold War. Hubris toward challengers such as China’s PLA Navy is a vice U.S. Navy leaders must rebuke without mercy. Hubris begets blind spots—and blind spots misshape strategy, operations, and tactics.

Affording this prospective antagonist respect and grappling with how its leadership makes and executes strategy will help the United States avoid intellectual failings of this sort. Westerners, including Americans, have made much of China’s anti-access strategy, for example. Some reduce anti-access to a family of weapons that China has deployed to make things tough on U.S. or allied forces. Anti-access is a material thing for analysts of such leanings. The engineering side of the problem is nettlesome, to be sure, but there is more to it than that. Beijing wants to make the rules regulating access to waters and skies it cares about. It would permit mercantile shipping to cruise the sea-lanes unmolested while proscribing military activities—surveillance flights, underwater surveys, and the like—that the leadership deems objectionable.

Resourceful regulators use whatever tools are at hand. Military force is only one such tool. Properly understood, then, anti-access is a grand strategy. Its practitioners harness diplomacy. Chinese emissaries impress upon potential opponents that the costs of forcible access to the western Pacific or China seas will prove unbearable and the return on the investment meager. If they do their job convincingly, they will skew American or allied cost-benefit calculations against bucking Beijing’s will. Economics is another tool at China’s disposal. Offering or withholding economic cooperation plays a part in its cost-imposing strategy. Economics could let Beijing play the alliance-breaker, moreover, peeling away U.S. allies that see an enormous stake in trading with China.

Moreover, the Chinese have shrewdly interpreted international law in ways that aim to restrict U.S. military use of the seas and airspace enshrouding China. They have also enshrined their legal positions across maritime Asia in domestic legislation in an attempt to confer sovereign authority on their excessive jurisdictional claims. And of course there is the obvious martial component. The PLA has devised hardware and tactics to persuade adversaries that they cannot win a trial of arms—or at any rate cannot win at a cost acceptable to them. China thus counts on foes to be rational and to abjure costly entanglements that promise scant gain.

Chinese anti-access efforts in the diplomatic, economic, legal, normative, and military realms thus constitute a strategic danger of the first order to the United States and its allies. After all, access to the western Pacific has been an essential pillar of America’s regional strategy for well over a century. Ever since Secretary of State John Hay issued his “Open Door” circular note in 1899, beseeching European powers to respect one another’s equal privileges to the Chinese market, Washington has designated comprehensive and unfettered access to Asia a vital regional objective. It was Tokyo’s progressive menace to U.S. access in Asia in the 1930s that drew the two sides into confrontation and eventually war. After Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War the United States drew up a blueprint for a system of mutual access to underwrite Asian peace, security, and prosperity. It then strove to put that blueprint into practice for decades afterward.

And sea power continued to act as the final arbiter of mutual access. The U.S. Navy’s postwar dominance facilitated the uninterrupted flow of seaborne commerce, promoting transpacific access to markets while offering a chance at prosperity for those who participated in the network of maritime trade. The naval service’s forward presence in Asia and its ability to respond rapidly to crises also deterred aggression while reassuring allies, and thereby preserved a favorable balance of power. For the United States, access begat wealth, wealth begat power, power begat stability, and stability begat access—a positive-sum cycle.

This is the grand-strategic “logic” of sea power. And it is China’s mounting resistance to the U.S.-led system of trade and commerce, which has nourished the regional order for more than seven decades, that makes the rise of Chinese sea power so worrisome. Policy makers, then, must resist the temptation to focus narrowly on the material or operational dimensions of Chinese anti-access. These are important beyond a doubt. But statesmen must recognize that China’s ascent and its accompanying dream pose an all-encompassing challenge to the United States and the long peace over which it has presided in Asia.

Second, geography is important to China, but its dreams are not bounded by geography. This volume has demonstrated that bursting the “first island chain” is integral to Chinese maritime strategy on economic, diplomatic, and military grounds. As Mahan teaches, maritime strategy is about prying open commercial, political, and military access to trading regions. But access starts at home for a power like China, encumbered as it is by offshore terrain. Occupying Taiwan, for instance, would break the island chain while guaranteeing the PLA Navy access to the western Pacific. It would also drive a salient into the offshore theater, granting Beijing new influence over the southern approaches to Japan and Korea. U.S. alliances might well suffer for it.

Would China content itself with such a geopolitical coup? Perhaps, but color us skeptical. It is very doubtful that China would terminate its seaward quest after a successful opening gambit. Rupturing the island-chain barrier constitutes Beijing’s immediate goal, not its ultimate goal. Mahan’s logic of maritime strategy directs Beijing to court access to suppliers of raw materials and consumers of Chinese products—and most regions critical to Chinese economic health and vitality lie beyond the first island chain. Access to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf in particular constitutes a fulcrum for China’s foreign policy and strategy. It demands a regular if not standing PLAN presence in these waterways. Regaining Taiwan would administer a palliative for the “Malacca dilemma” that vexes China’s leadership, but it would not cure it.

In short, no one should expect China to stand down once ensconced on Taiwan. Nor will even an ascendant China abandon its martial playbook. As strategic documents and commentary indicate, China has fashioned a way of maritime operations and tactics that owes something to Mahan’s operational “grammar” of marine command but derives primarily from Mao Zedong’s grammar of “active defense,” as interpreted and reinterpreted by generations of CCP leaders and PLA commanders. This elastic mode of strategy envisions luring foes deep into Chinese defenses while exacting a heavy toll from them as they come. Only after enfeebling stronger enemy forces will PLA defenders hazard decisive combat. If anti-access measures work as designed, China might not even need to risk the PLAN surface fleet in action. Better yet, the defense might deter American intervention altogether.

Third, while martial greatness constitutes part of the Chinese Dream, it is not the whole of it. As we have noted time and again in this volume, Chinese strategists conceive of maritime strategy in holistic terms. The pursuit of access drives them. Strategy manifests itself concretely as Beijing nurtures commerce, builds ships, and negotiates access to foreign harbors. In practical terms, then, any implement that can mold events in waters China cares about represents an implement of sea power. That could be a PLA Navy ship, a PLA Air Force jet, a PLA Rocket Force antiship missile, or a China Coast Guard cutter. It could even be a fishing trawler crewed by militia. For China, maritime strategy is not solely a navy-against-navy affair. U.S. diplomats and military folk must prepare themselves for Beijing’s hyper-Mahanian approach to sea power.

Fourth, ideas from the strategic canon can help Americans fathom the workings of China’s maritime strategy. Mahan’s works are helpful both because they exert direct influence in China and because they help scholars and practitioners analyze and explain the actions of any sea power—whether or not it pays homage to Mahan. But Mahanian operational grammar furnishes China with only partial guidance at best. Chinese strategists have merged ideas from Mao, Corbett, and other eminent thinkers into a synthetic grammar of sea combat. American mariners must read these classics as well, not only for their intrinsic worth but also because together they afford a glimpse at the red team’s playbook.

Fifth, if it is critical not to denigrate China’s capacity to compete, it is just as critical not to overrate China as a high-seas competitor. Its maritime services and naval-industrial complex have performed impressively to date, but they are neither infallible nor superhuman nor unstoppable. Nor are they exempt from human frailty or material shortcomings. Nor are China’s national resources inexhaustible. It is far from predestined, consequently, that Chinese sea power will continue along its upward trajectory into the distant future. Demographic travails, economic woes, and diplomatic overreach could burden China’s seaward ambitions and impose a ceiling on them over the long term.

Parlous times may await the region as China nears that ceiling. Autocratic societies such as China presumably know more than any external observer about their domestic circumstances. If China’s campaign for sea power starts butting up against its limits—and if Chinese maritime strategists believe the U.S. military has begun to compete in earnest at last—the leadership may conclude it must act now or never. In fact, such a mindset may have already taken hold. A sense of urgency may help explain the haste impelling China’s efforts to consolidate territorial gains in the South China Sea. Beijing is running the risk of uniting a hostile Southeast Asian coalition because the risks of leisurely strategy appear far worse.

Turning more narrowly to naval matters, the costs of operating and maintaining China’s ever-growing fleet will mount. For now China benefits on the cheap from the surge in newly commissioned vessels whose keels it laid under the modernization programs of the 1990s and 2000s. Indeed, the PLAN has been putting to sea ships of all types at breakneck speed over the past decade. Like new cars, new ships demand little maintenance in their youth. As they age, however, the cost of keeping them seaworthy and fit to fight will escalate. Shipboard components, parts, machinery, and complex weapons systems will need replacement owing to routine wear and tear, not to mention upgrades as technology advances. Older equipment is also prone to malfunction and failure under unforgiving conditions at sea. If the PLAN suffers from slack maintenance practices, structural damage—frequently unnoticed until it is prohibitively expensive to repair—could accrue. Such oversights compound the costs of fleet maintenance.

Consequently, the price of managing an aging fleet’s operational readiness will rise sharply even as Chinese planners look ahead to designing and procuring new generations of warships. The cost curve could prove especially steep because entire classes of ships that joined the fleet in quick succession could reach obsolescence en masse a decade or two hence. Gleaming new hulls splashed on TV or the Internet surround the PLAN with an aura of power and majesty today, but the bill will eventually come due. When it does, programs for everyday operations and upkeep will compete with recapitalization and modernization for scarce—and perhaps diminishing—resources. Maintaining an aging fleet entails opportunity costs for the future fleet.

In the not-so-distant future, then, Beijing will face budgetary choices from which years of abundance have exempted it. How much will it cost China to maintain a larger and older fleet while keeping it sufficiently modern and ready for combat in 2025 or 2030? This question hangs over decision makers in Beijing. Washington should anticipate the day when China begins to labor under such financial burdens and should hunt for ways to impose painful trade-offs on China while magnifying the opportunity costs inherent to any seagoing navy. Making things pricey for China represents another mode of peacetime maritime competition.

Sixth, China is neither unreasonable nor impervious to deterrence. It responds to costs, benefits, and hazards just as any rational competitor does. Steadfast, firm, patient pushback thus could induce Beijing to postpone its ambitions. And if it postpones them long enough, internal change could engender more healthful attitudes toward regional politics. Are we prescribing a containment strategy? Strictly speaking, no. China is not the Soviet Union in 1950, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson inscribed his “American defense perimeter” on the map of Asia.

Nor does twenty-first-century China exhibit the kinds of ideological hostility that plunged U.S.-China relations into a deep freeze—including a comprehensive diplomatic and economic embargo that would be unthinkable today—during the first two decades of the Maoist era. While Beijing has not hesitated to influence foreign governments subtly through economic inducements, public-relations campaigns, and soft power, including proliferating pro-China “Confucius Institutes” to Western universities, it evinces little desire to export a malign ideology or overthrow the West.

And while containment sought to constrict Soviet expansionism through political, economic, and military measures, it is far from obvious that every element of China’s maritime strategy warrants containing. Some of Beijing’s initiatives—its One Belt, One Road enterprise, to name one—appear innocuous if not downright beneficial to Eurasia as a whole. America and its allies must distinguish between public goods of this sort and efforts to abridge freedom of the sea or wrest territory or resources from neighbors. The former should be welcomed, the latter opposed without remorse.

In fact, standing aside could constitute savvy strategy. It is plausible that China is guilty of self-defeating behavior as it plans to invest across Eurasia by land and by sea. Beijing intends to plunge infrastructure investments into some of the least stable and productive regions in the world. The prospective returns on those investments seem dubious at best. One Belt, One Road thus may represent a formula for self-inflicted Chinese financial and diplomatic overextension. In that case the United States and its allies should get out of China’s way and let it fritter away its capital—a finite resource—and even goad Beijing into overreach if possible.


China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during military drills in the Pacific.

Type 075 class of amphibious assault ship.

Every yuan China devotes to projects of questionable worth in South and Central Asia is one less yuan Beijing has to spend on threatening implements of maritime and aerospace power for the western Pacific. The diversionary effects of China’s ambitious and potentially quixotic Eurasian quest could benefit the United States and its allies along the first island chain over the long run. In the meantime Washington and Asian capitals must deter and shape the worst elements of Chinese behavior in maritime Asia.

In practical terms, a U.S. strategy aimed at curbing China’s worst excesses would display an outward semblance of containment—and China’s leadership would doubtless interpret it as such. For decades Beijing has accused the United States of harboring a “Cold War mentality” and of conniving with Asian allies to stunt China’s rise. For instance, arming the Ryukyu Islands with antiship and antiair missiles to constrain Chinese sea and air access to the western Pacific would dredge up bad memories in Beijing.

That being the case, diplomatic dexterity is at a premium in Washington and friendly capitals. Political and military leaders must explain how they intend to marshal power to advance clearly stated political purposes while at the same time reassuring their Chinese counterparts that America has no desire to thwart the beneficent rise to economic and diplomatic eminence that China claims to be pursuing. Plainspoken diplomacy is best. American emissaries must neither bluster nor dissemble.

Yet policy makers must also be ready to accept that their reassurances, no matter how sincere, may never convince Beijing that the United States neither bears ill will toward China nor seeks to thwart its rise. As preceding chapters have demonstrated, unpleasant historical memories predispose Beijing to view the world as a dark place where only the fittest survive. At the same time, China’s elemental sense of its place and purpose in Asia may render unacceptable to the Chinese state and society any Asian future except their own dominance. Unshakable beliefs could convince Chinese leaders that a struggle for mastery over Asia is probable if not inevitable.

Washington must do what it can to avoid a showdown, but it must do so without abdicating its leadership and the military predominance that has underwritten American primacy. It must also prepare itself to wage a new Cold War in Asia should one come. Given that the central theater for such a rivalry would be a nautical theater, framing a coherent maritime strategy now is indispensable to strategic success.

Some may blanch at the prospect of another Cold War. Few savor the idea. But the alternative—if China displaced the United States as the regional hegemon—would prove far worse. Imagine a future Asia where a domineering China dictated events while demanding deference from its neighbors and where the principle that might makes right ruled. China’s track record in word and deed over the past decade suggests that this imagined future is no stretch.

Others may protest, reprising the familiar rejoinder noted in the previous chapter that we are engaging in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat China like an enemy, they say, it will surely become one. But China is a strategic actor in its own right, not some passive mass that merely responds to stimuli from outside. China sees its destiny and is determined to fulfill it. It has acted on its ambitions for at least a decade, long before anyone opposed it. If a prophecy impels China, it is the prophecy conveyed by Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream—not one imposed from outside.

Policy makers, then, must reject straw-man arguments that reduce China to an inert object and see it for what it is: a living force with an iron will to power. And we must see that America and China have embarked on an inherently interactive, reciprocal competition. Only by discerning the true nature of the relationship can Washington act expediently to mold China’s behavior, impose costs on it where necessary, and coerce or fight it if we must. If we falsely assume the relationship is a one-way affair in which China perpetually defends itself against U.S. actions, then we risk talking ourselves into inaction. Doing nothing is always an option in strategic competition. It would be an unworkable one after years of Chinese strategic advances at sea.

This brings us back to U.S. maritime strategy. Apart from urging naval officialdom to study the facets of Chinese strategy set forth in this volume, we offer four parting recommendations.

First, U.S. strategists and practitioners should be more Chinese in some respects. Or rather, they should emulate China’s approach to reading, filtering, and applying Mahan’s writings and amalgamating them with other fonts of strategic wisdom. In effect China takes a joint, interagency, and public-private outlook on maritime strategy, conscripting any ship, aircraft, or weapon able to shape events at sea. Such an outlook would benefit U.S. strategists as well. Sea power is not—or should not be—solely the province of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

Americans too must think jointly and inventively. U.S. Army forces, for example, could play a pivotal part in U.S. maritime strategy. They have done it before, staging amphibious operations in the South Pacific on an epic scale to beat Imperial Japan. Soldiers could mount an anti-access strategy in miniature if ground units were emplaced along the first island chain. China can exact a heavy price for steaming into its environs. Missile-armed U.S. ground forces can reciprocate by taking their own toll on PLA Navy or Air Force units trying to exit or reenter the China seas. Furthermore, U.S. troops can supply fire support for allied naval and air forces. Like the PLA, they could stage a “fortress-fleet” strategy, sweeping hostile units from nearby waters and skies while hoisting an aegis under which fleet operations can proceed. Turnabout is fair play in strategy.

More important, such implements of anti-access possess intrinsic political value. Ground-based missile units would express America’s commitment to its allies in physical form. When deployed to friendly soil, U.S. forces become concrete tokens of America’s resolve. An attack on them would invite a powerful riposte. That very prospect might deter China from making a move in the first place.

Consider a hair-raising scenario in which the PLA is readying itself to unleash a massive missile campaign against the Ryukyu Islands during an escalating crisis with Japan. Deploying a U.S. rapid-response battalion armed with truck-mounted antiship and air-defense missiles to the southwest islands could alter the Chinese strategic calculus while disrupting the associated military plans. While a powerful Chinese first strike might wipe out both Japanese and American island defenders, PLA commanders and their political masters would be compelled to weigh the operational benefit of doing so against the certainty that the United States would now enter the fray in force on its ally’s behalf. In all likelihood Beijing would think twice before pulling the trigger. If the Chinese did back away from their military option, the allies would have successfully upheld deterrence—winning a strategic victory by any measure.

This hypothetical scenario suggests that policy makers must reacquaint themselves with the idea of “tripwire” forces, token military units planted in an opponent’s way to provide a first line of defense. An attack on these frontline defenders triggers intervention by larger forces. Recall that U.S. Army tripwire forces were stationed in West Berlin—a city that was never defensible in any meaningful way—throughout the Cold War. No one meant them to stop, much less defeat, the Warsaw Pact onslaught if deterrence failed. NATO fully accepted that they would be destroyed should World War III break out. Yet their destruction would guarantee U.S. involvement in any East-West conflagration—automatically shoring up deterrence. U.S. ground forces along and near the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula likewise perform a tripwire function to deter Pyongyang.

It may be time for Washington to strew tripwires in Beijing’s path. China’s surging might has emboldened Beijing to advance its regional designs, confident that its smaller neighbors are too intimidated to resist. China’s strategic importance to Asia and beyond also affords Chinese leaders ample margin of error to absorb blowback from their adventurism. Witness Beijing’s dismissive attitude toward the PCA at The Hague in 2016 after jurors rendered a stinging legal judgment against China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea. In that instance Chinese leaders calculated correctly that they could withstand the damage to China’s reputation from defying international law.

Emboldened by such precedents, Beijing may one day conclude that it is time to roll the iron dice. If the Chinese believe their moves will encounter negligible or nonexistent resistance, they will continue to seek incremental gains or may even make a sudden move that presents the region with a fait accompli. The notion of a “short, sharp war” against Japan—an option the PLA reportedly entertained in 2014—represents one variant of a fait accompli strategy.

To discourage such moves policy makers should introduce tripwire forces to the western Pacific theater, some deployed along the front lines and some held in reserve, to prompt Chinese leaders to rethink plans for aggression. As the scenario postulated above suggests, such forces would (1) awaken Chinese decision makers to the risks and costs of actions they may be contemplating and thus induce them to pause and reflect before they pass the point of no return; (2) slow the momentum toward conflict, allowing all sides the time to cool down and seek an exit from the confrontation before it is too late; (3) reassure allies that the United States remains steadfastly committed to their cause in times of crisis or hostilities, and thereby discourage allies from reactions or overreactions that could worsen tensions; (4) impose operational costs, however minor they may be, should deterrence fail; (5) buy time for reinforcements to arrive in the theater should a shooting war break out; and, above all, (6) fundamentally change the political dynamics of the crisis by showing that America has a vital stake in the western Pacific and will act accordingly.

Consequently, it behooves U.S. policy makers to relearn elements of the Cold War playbook. Accepting and taking risks will likely become a routine part of the great-power competition between the United States and China. This is no less true at sea. The politics of anti-access reinforces our argument that executors of U.S. maritime strategy must view the instruments of sea power entrusted to them in holistic, grand-strategic terms. These are elements that senior commanders and civilian policy makers must forge into a weapon of national policy in order to discourage misbehavior.

Strategists must think in interagency terms, especially as they strive to counteract China’s “gray-zone” offensive. As we observed before, Beijing deploys China Coast Guard cutters in tandem with the fishing fleet. These two elements constitute China’s “small stick,” the vanguard of its gray-zone strategy in the East and South China Seas. Washington might follow suit, dispatching U.S. Coast Guard cutters and sailors to help Asian allies guard their EEZs. It could form combined coast guard units with regional partners; it could buy small craft in large numbers, paint them white, relabel them cutters, let fly the Stars and Stripes, and station them in the region. This represents one option among many. Contemplating such offbeat courses of action is a must.

And what about public-private ventures in maritime strategy? Pressing merchantmen into service as strategic implements is a lost art among American mariners. They should cultivate it afresh. Commercial vessels could supplement the efforts of military and law enforcement forces. For instance, freighters converted for military use could serve as logistics assets helping refuel, restock, and rearm U.S. expeditionary forces on station in the western Pacific. Using them in this way would help offset the extreme leanness of the U.S. combat-logistics fleet. Such vessels could act as mother ships for U.S. Coast Guard small craft or for special-operations units. It behooves strategists to think ahead about such options. Imagination is a virtue—orthodoxy, not so much.

Second, we beseech the sea services not to neglect the human dimension of strategy while tending to the material dimension. Colonel John Boyd maintains that people, ideas, and hardware—in that order—represent the crucial determinants of human competition and strife. Naval leaders must be prepared to entertain once-unthinkable ideas about strategy and operations rather than dismissing them reflexively. To name one: if China is building toward a five-hundred-ship PLA Navy by 2030, as reputable analysts foretell, how big a U.S. Navy will it take to answer that challenge? Naval leaders must agitate for a fleet larger than any under consideration today if that is the tool they need to accomplish the job.

The leadership, moreover, may need to reconsider habitual deployment patterns. Under the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the sea services reapportioned forces from the traditional fifty-fifty split between Pacific and Atlantic to a sixty-forty split in favor of the Pacific theater. The Trump administration has evidently made the pivot its own while dispensing with the metaphor. But if the U.S. Navy still has its hands full with the PLA Navy, it must reallocate assets more lopsidedly to the Pacific Ocean. It could transfer a bigger share of the fleet as measured by raw numbers of hulls. Or it could shift high-end platforms to the Pacific while reserving light forces for the relatively sedate Atlantic and prevailing on NATO for help policing that expanse against the Russian Navy and other menaces. Naval leaders should reject no idea out of hand—no matter how outlandish it may seem.

Third, sea-service leaders must renovate American naval culture. To start, they must resolve never again to declare an end to naval history. Even smashing triumphs—a World War II or a Cold War—do not repeal such basic naval functions as fighting for maritime command. Nor does victory obviate others’ capacity to contest U.S. marine supremacy. In short, there will always be a next contender, just as there always has been. Service chieftains should encode that axiom in the sea services’ institutional DNA, making it the starting point for debates about strategy, operations, and fleet design. Never again should naval leaders declare never again.

Even should the sea services surmount China’s maritime challenge, the leadership must instill an inquisitive spirit within naval culture. If the next challenger awaits somewhere over the horizon—and it does—mariners and defense manufacturers cannot rest. They must apply themselves constantly to devise new hardware and methods for sea combat. Numbers of fighting ships and aircraft might contract if U.S.-China strategic competition goes America’s way. They probably will. But if high-end armaments already exist in modest numbers when the next challenge takes shape, it will be easier to scale up the force structure than to compel the naval-industrial complex to improvise new systems under the duress of strategic competition or armed strife. Hence the need to innovate before the reason why becomes plain.

And last, the naval leadership should make American naval culture a restless culture like the one Wolfgang Wegener saw impelling the Royal Navy during the epoch when Britannia ruled the waves. Longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer observes that creative ages are buoyant ages. They are ages when whimsy prevails—when any crank can formulate a zany idea, put it to the test, discard it if it fails, and move on to the next oddball hypothesis. Some experiments will pay off even though most do not. A playful organizational culture is apt to be a culture favoring enterprise and derring-do—in other words, a culture able to handle all tests and come out stronger for it. Meeting the seaborne challenge manifest in China’s dream, it seems, demands far more than upgrading weapons or sensors. It demands wholesale material and cultural reform. Let’s take inspiration from a longshoreman and a German admiral and make it so.

French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part II

French battleship design had a style all of its own, backed up by intensive work and study on ship behaviour, though this was often of a theoretical rather than practical kind.

Change and Modernisation, 1890-1904

The next fifteen years were an era of unprecedented and dramatic technological developments in all aspects of naval warfare, in guns and ammunition, in torpedoes and mines, in electricity, searchlights and wireless, in triple expansion engines and water-tube boilers and the appearance of the first operational submarines. Ships completed in the 1880s were already obsolescent when they first put to sea, totally obsolete a few years later as the speed of change quickened.

For the Marine the fifteen years were also to involve a major change in strategy, the full implications of which took time to be fully accepted, no longer a guerre de course against Great Britain but urgent attention against the new and more dangerous enemy nearer home. After Fashoda it was clear that a colonial war with France could not be a success and possibly lead to a loss of colonies. The colonial powers had secured their areas of control or interest, the few remaining flashpoints were either manageable or of less importance. Britain was making it clear that she intended to retain control over the Suez Canal but would not stand in the way against French ambitions in Morocco, a territory where Germany was showing disturbing signs of interest. More serious was the evident wider ambitions of the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had come to the throne in 1888 and in two years had dismissed his Chancellor, Bismarck, and begun the building of an ocean navy. Faced with this new challenge in the North Sea together with the threat of a triple alliance, Italy, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, the need for an efficient modern balanced navy was now obvious and recognised by most politicians. Despite some vocal political opposition and a few areas where interests clashed, by the time of the formal 1904 Anglo-French Convention much had been achieved.

With the plaques for Alsace and Lorraine in the Paris Place de le Concorde covered with black cloth, a permanent reminder of the defeat of the French Army in 1870, the admirals had always to fight their corner against the generals. Until 1901 battleship design reflected only modification and improvement on the 1880s classes, otherwise similar in armament and performance but differing in deck and mast layout. The first five, Carnot, Charles Martel, Jauréguiberry, Masséna and Bouvet all displaced around 11,400 tons and were armed with one single 12-inch gun turret fore and aft together with two 10-inch guns in turrets on each sided amidships as main armament, all could reach 17.5 knots, and were in service by 1898. Completed in 1895-6 were also the last of the ‘Second Rate’ coast defence ships, two 6,200 ton ships armed with a single 12-inch gun turret fore and aft. As the threat of an all-out Royal Navy blockade attack on French ports receded no further ships of this type were built.

With the next class of battleships, Charlemagne, St Louis and Gaulois French builders produced ships that began to measure up to the pre-Dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy. They had the British style twin 12-inch gun turrets fore and aft, they displaced 11,000 tons, carried a powerful secondary and torpedo armament and could steam at 18 knots. They were followed by a reversion, the Henri IV of 8,000 tons whose main armament was limited to single 10.8-inch guns in turrets fore and aft and her speed only 17 knots. To save weight this ship’s quarterdeck was only four feet above the waterline, often invisible. Iéna that followed was slightly larger with 4 12-inch guns.

In place of the Coast Defence ships the concept of the modern armoured cruiser, later after the First World War to evolve into the heavy (8-inch gun) cruiser, began to appear with the construction of the Dupuy de Lôme completed in 1895, a ship immediately conspicuous by an exaggerated ram bow. Displacing 6,700 tons she was armed with two 7.6-inch and six 6.11-inch guns and two 18-inch torpedo tubes, lightly armoured, no rigging for sail and a maximum speed of nearly 20 knots Dupuy de Lôme marked an important stage in modernisation. Five slightly smaller vessels followed, all with a main armament of two 7.6-inch guns and were succeeded by the 11,000 ton Jeanne d’ Arc, the first of what was to become a familiar sight in the First World War, the five or six funnelled French warships. She carried a mixed gun armament, two 7.6-inch guns and fourteen 5.5-inch guns but could make the speed remarkable for its time of 21.5 knots. Eleven more armoured cruisers in three classes, three of the 9,200 ton Gueydon and 9,800 ton Gloire classes armed with two 7.6-inch and eight 6.4-inch guns, and five of the smaller Dupleix class with eight 6.4-inch only. All had maximum speeds of 20.7 to 22 knots and were completed between 1902 and 1904.

Despite the ending of colonial rivalries with Great Britain and the new threats nearer home the protection of some overseas as well as home bases was still regarded as a priority despite the costs and reduced threats. Debate over the number and degree of developments and protection led to a reduction in those overseas considered essential, by 1902 some twelve had been reduced to five Martinique (Fort de France), Dakar, Diego-Suarez, Saigon and Nouméa with one possible, Han Gay in Tonkin. For these there were to be two cruiser ‘Flying Squadrons’, one based at Brest for the Atlantic and one at Diego-Suarez for areas east of Suez, with single ships based on the others now seen as of secondary value.8 More radical changes were to follow in the next ten years.

For this strategy thirty-two cruisers, in the category of Protected Cruisers entered service. These varied in tonnage, two very small of 2,400 tons, the majority between 3,300 and 5,000 and four of 7,000 tons or over. Most had four 6.4-inch guns as main armament, all except three were fitted with torpedo tubes, four were equipped for mine-laying, only the D’Entrecasteaux with two 9.4-inch guns carried major fire power. All had speeds of 19 to 22 knots with the exception of Châteaurenault, a very distinctive ship in appearance being built to resemble a four funnelled passenger liner in silhouette, and with a speed to reach 24 knots. Four small ‘torpedo cruisers’ of 1,280 tons were also built, to prove of little value.

The Jeune École obsession with torpedo boats continued with an initial programme of two hundred and ninety-four boats of between 90-100 tons armed with a single spar or two of the much improved torpedoes in tubes. A second programme ordered in 1904 and begun in the following year provided for a further seventy-five boats to be fitted with a third tube. The poor sea-keeping qualities of these small boats led, to the annoyance of on-going Jeune École purists, to a parallel programme of torpilleurs de haute-mer, slightly larger sea-going boats. These were given names rather than numbers. Except for the first nine inadequate boats the remaining thirty-six varied in tonnage between 120 to 170, two, three, a few four torpedo tubes and two or three light 37mm guns for self-defence. Except for the first nine speeds rose to twenty to twenty-five knots. A number were still in service in the early 1920s, but the very limited success of Japanese torpedo boats in their attack on Port Arthur in 1904 was to show up their deficiencies.

The construction of this very large number or torpedo boats created alarm across the Channel culminating in another nervous ‘naval scare’ in London in 1897. The Royal Navy saw a danger of swarms of small torpedo boats dashing around making simultaneous co-ordinated attacks from different directions on British battleships, confusing the big ships gunners defensive fire. The British Admiralty ordered the design and construction of the first of an entirely new class of warship, the Torpedo Boat Destroyer, at the time referred to as T.B.D., but later shortened simply to ‘destroyer’. The first, Havock, entered service in 1894, she displaced 240 tons, was armed with a 12 pdr gun and three 18-inch torpedo tubes and claimed a world record working speed of 26.7 knots. Havock was regarded as a great success. Her size, speed, mix of guns and torpedoes in a gamekeeper-poacher combination set the pattern for successive generations of destroyers, British and world-wide.

The Marine was not slow to follow. Four proto-types were launched in 1899-1900, followed by twenty-eight more between 1899 and 1904. Tonnage averaged 300 tons and armaments for all were a 65 mm and six 47 mm guns, two 15-inch torpedo tubes and speeds of 20 to 21 knots.

Even more far-reaching for the future than the destroyer was serious experimental work on under-water craft, much favoured by the Marine Minister, Pelletan. At the outset opinion was divided between arguments for submersibles and arguments for submarines. Submersibles were generally steam propelled surface warships with a record of being more easy to direct and control while on the surface, but also more conspicuous and taking some ten minutes before they could close down and dive for the brief periods during a battle when they were required to submerge and attack the enemy vessels. The submarine was designed to be a fully submerged warship, slow but a boat that could approach a sea combat on the surface awash, and then dive very quickly and by the technology of the time only be located if its periscope was visible. Submerged underwater, though, the problems of clean-air breathing and hygiene generally were proving difficult. The specialist underwater naval constructor Gustav Zédé produced a small 30 ton electrically driven submarine, Gymnote in the 1880s. In 1893 a larger boat, the Gustav Zédé appeared and proved a success. She was followed by the 120 ton Narval, a steam-driven submersible with speeds of 11 knots on the surface and 15 knots submerged. In 1899 the steam-driven slightly larger submarine Farfardet later renamed Follet was built, 185 tons on the surface and 200 submerged and carrying four 15-inch torpedoes in the old ‘Dog Collar’ external launching gear. She was electric powered and reached speeds of 12 knots and 8 knots surface and underwater. Farfadet was followed by four Sirène class submersibles of 157 tons surface and 200 tons submerged to be propelled by steam petrol fuelled engines on the surface and motors submerged. These followed an order for twenty submarines of the very small Naiade class of only 68 tons to be propelled by petrol motors on the surface and electricity while plunging, but these were soon seen to be valueless and only one or two were actually build with instead in their place three purely experimental larger boats with tonnages varying between 168 and 232 tons. The designer of the Narval, Laubeuf, returned to the cause of submersibles with two Aigrette class boats of 172 tons surface and 371 submerged. The slightly larger Omega (later Argonaut) diesel propelled followed. Another project, one with low costs in mind were the two very small submarines of the Guêpe class designed to be carried on a transporter. Orders for more were later cancelled but the political preference for boats, small and cheap remained. Two more small experimental boats, Circe and Calypso, both generally similar to the Aigrettes followed, petrol driven and armed with six improved torpedoes. However, all these boats had seriously limited range of action and none could stay submerged for very long. Seen as an answer to these handicaps an old cruiser, Foudre, was fitted with deck cranes to be used as a transport for smaller submarines but the practical difficulties and delays in dropping the boats in the midst of a battle were obvious. Eyes turned to Royal Navy construction. The idea that submersibles and submarines could be another inexpensive form of defence (there were even plans for a total submarine force of one hundred and thirty boats by 1919) became discredited. Submarine theory began to move towards the British pattern of larger and faster boats designed for offensive operations.

Organisation of the Marine

After a number of unsatisfactory earlier arrangements a proper professional organisation for the Marine headed by a general staff was set up in 1882. It included directorates (bureaux) for movement and operations, statistical surveys for the Marine and foreign navies, for reserves, for mobilisation and for coast defence with a little later one for personnel. In 1899-1902 much of the authority of the Chief of Staff was transferred to the Minister’s office leaving the Chief of Staff concerned with little more than day to day administration. Personality, doctrine and strategic friction and opinion clashes led to frequent changes at Chief of Staff and fleet command levels. A Conseil Supérieur de la Marine composed mainly of serving officers advised the Minister on national policy as a figurehead body, the Minister did not have to follow its recommendations. Until 1902 naval officer inspector-generals watched over the day-to-day efficiency of ships and bases, this was replaced by an administrative control corps who reported direct to the Minister and was principally concerned with budgetary matters.

The manpower strength of the Marine rose from some 42,000(including pilots, bandsmen and boys) in 1880 to some 52,000 by 1904, the total not including reservists. Recruitment of seamen was based on men from the coastal areas where their youth had been spent at sea in fishing or as crew members of a larger ship. Some ten per cent of these men were illiterate. They could in theory be required to serve for as long as five years, thereafter they were placed on a reserve up to the age of fifty and liable for recall. In return these men, known as inscrits the whole system being called inscription militaire, received certain privileges including special fishing rights, reduced rail fares, the opportunity of contributing to a not very generous pension scheme and exemptions of their homes from any military billeting. The system led to acute drafting problems, ships going to sea with men hurriedly moved from one vessel to another, or with inadequate crews.

Far more serious though was the indiscipline, frequently open, and a legacy from the Post-Revolution rift in French society. The petty officers (sous-officiers) were not obeyed, officers obeyed only in an insubordinate or perfunctory way. One naval officer commented that he often heard the Internationale sung in the seamen’s mess decks and saw real hatred in the eyes of the individual sailors. On some occasions men simply stayed on the quayside refusing to embark. The petty officers were in despair, the officers dismayed and discouraged. The traditional paternalistic officer-sailor bonding with officers ‘tutoying’ to sailors had gone. Little attention seems to have been given to individual sailors welfare nor much sport organised. Ashore, many sailors activities centred on more traditional relaxations in areas of bases and ports known collectively as the Rue d’Alger. Ships went to sea not only inadequately crewed but with inefficient stores and incomplete ammunition holdings to add to the poor morale.

A number of sous-officiers were later commissioned as officers, but the majority of deck officers were products of secondary schools, some of which had a ‘navy stream’ for those wanting to join the Marine. Again in the majority most were middle class with some ten per cent from the aristocracy. Breton names frequently appear. Candidates had to have passed a preparation naval baccalauréat examination at almost invariably a fee-paying school. Those accepted were then sent to the officers training establishment at Brest which took the form of an old wooden hulk, the Borda, still armed with muzzle-loading guns. Cadets slept in hammocks and were treated and trained as ordinary sailors, there does not seem to have been any academic professional teaching. After a year as aspirants the bordaches as they proudly called themselves were sent to sea in a training ship, usually an old cruiser where their treatment differed little from that of the Borda. After a further period back on Borda still as aspirants a return to sea as enseignes 2e classe for two years followed, ships proceeding on long voyagers visiting foreign ports. Finally as enseignes de vaisseau and still very much under supervision the young officer received his first appointment as a ship’s officer. Engineer officers were mostly recruited from merchant shipping—and were paid very much better. A small number had had a measure of professional training at a civilian college.

For career development young officers were then sent on specialist training, torpedo, gunnery or signals. Mid-career wider training in naval strategy and tactics was opened in 1895 at an École Supérieure de la Marine which supervised instruction initially at sea on three cruisers. It was, however, very quickly replaced, following a change of government by an École des Hautes Études de la Marine in Paris in a course lasting eight months, only to be wound up with a return to the 1895 arrangement following another change of government. Old school officers held such training with disdain and it did not seem to have served any real value.

Only a minority of career officers practised religion and the abolition of naval chaplains in 1907 was not opposed. For many naval service was a career move, especially if it led to marriage with a daughter of a senior admiral or general, or the wealthy. A series of improvements in naval medicine began in 1875, ships doctors were required to have a professional qualification. The standard of the professional qualification was raised in 1895 and proper fully professional naval schools opened at Bordeaux in 1890 and in Toulon in 1896.

The metropolitan naval bases in 1904 remained Calais, Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient, Rochefort and Toulon with Dunkerque for torpedo boats. Dry docking facilities were only slowly developed despite the increasing size of ships. Both management and industrial relations were poor. The use of private dock facilities at Le Havre, St Nazaire and Marseille was of only limited value. The major shipbuilding slipways and fitting out yards were at Brest and Lorient for larger ships, with Cherbourg, Rochefort, on the Gironde near Bordeaux and at La Seyne near Toulon for smaller vessels. Other smaller yards included one at Le Havre and one for torpedo boats as far inland as Nantes. In the rapidly developing international naval construction race France with its limited shipbuilding capabilities, together with obsolete organisation and recruitment arrangements was fast falling behind.

In the colonial empire even the five bases given priority in 1902 were now appearing more as aspirations than realities as the size of warships increased. Facilities adequate for small warships were inadequate for the larger vessels entering service which might need dry-docking, particularly if damaged in battle. Thinking became increasingly concentrated on North Africa, especially Bizerte, with significant developments to follow in the last ten years before the First World War.

Royal Navy Readiness for a War with Japan in Mid-1941: Intelligence and Capability II

Importantly, FECB collaborated closely with NID with inevitable advantages here for intelligence distribution and exploitation. Patrick Beesly, who worked for NID in the war, described FECB as a ‘well thought out and comprehensive organisation, the first example of an inter-service effort in the intelligence field, and for NID its most important outstation’. When it moved to Singapore from Hong Kong in 1939, FECB acquired its own Naval Operational Intelligence Centre (NOIC), modelled on that at the Admiralty, the Pacific Naval Intelligence Organisation, which provided a plot of all Axis naval activity from East Africa to the west coast of the Americas. In his 1939 command review, Commanderin-Chief China, Vice Admiral Sir Percy Noble, stated that FECB had ensured he knew with complete confidence the whereabouts of all elements of the Japanese combined fleet on the outbreak of the European war. It also located the German pocket battleship Graf Spee during her brief foray into the Indian Ocean through long-range direction-finding (D/F) fixes. In covering the IJN, FECB drew together intelligence from signals intelligence (SIGINT), human agents, aerial reconnaissance, submarine surveillance, diplomatic reporting and open sources.

Most important of all, Japan lacked the merchant shipping resources necessary to sustain its economy during a war with the western powers and to reap the benefit of its conquests, especially in regard to oil. Furthermore, the IJN had neither thought about trade protection, nor devoted any effort to procuring the relevant capabilities, drawing on Royal Navy lessons in the Atlantic. When it began the war, the IJN had just four dedicated anti-submarine escorts, and had no underwater detection equipment available at sea until August 1942. At that time, the Royal Navy was deploying 2100 sonar equipped ships. IJN doctrine was narrowly focused on the concept of a decisive battle with the enemy fleet. Here it was ‘ingenious, imaginative and beautifully crafted’. But it neglected the wider aspects of maritime power on which Japan depended, and underestimated the limitations of Japan’s economic and industrial capacity which threatened rapid obsolescence.

Some qualifications are nevertheless required. Japan commissioned more carriers than either Britain or the United States in 1942, almost compensating for its heavy losses that year, and it out-built Britain in this category over the three fiscal years 1942–45. It also tripled aircraft production across these years and introduced some competitive new designs. In some respects its wartime aircraft industry outperformed that of the Soviet Union. During the war years from 1942 to 1945, Japan also produced 3,392,814 tons of merchant shipping, including 986,159 tons of oil tankers. This was very close to British output over this period, despite the huge disruption from bombing Japan suffered from mid-1944. Without bombing, Japan might have out-produced Britain in merchant shipping.

When due account is taken of all these factors, the evidence that the Royal Navy formally and consistently marked the IJN down on fighting efficiency is sparse. Three items are invariably highlighted: a 1935 report by the Tokyo naval attaché, Captain J P G Vivian; the 1939 Tientsin papers, which rated the fighting efficiency of the IJN at 80 per cent of the Royal Navy; and the joint planning staff and Joint Intelligence Committee assessments during 1941 that Japanese air forces should be rated on a par with the Italians. These items must be placed in context. The Vivian report attempted to identify traits in Japanese national characteristics and culture which might limit its efficiency. It undoubtedly attracted high-level interest in the naval staff when it appeared, but it has probably received more weight than it merits, simply because it has survived in the files, whereas alternative views have not. There is no evidence it had lasting impact, or ever represented a consensus. The 1937 Far East appreciation, two years later, assumed that, for planning purposes, the IJN had equal capability to the Royal Navy. Indeed, it specifically proposed the Royal Navy should aim for a capital ship advantage of twelve to nine.

The 1939 80 per cent rating appears to have persisted as a rough gauge of IJN quality over the next two years, but there is no sign this had any practical effect, either. It is also important to underline that the original reference was to maintenance, not to skill and commitment in battle. The IJN discovered serious design flaws in several classes of ships in the mid-1930s, notably the Mogami-and Takao-class cruisers and Fubuki-class destroyers. Correcting these involved major remedial work, with ships out of commission for long periods. It is likely the Royal Navy was aware of this and it may have contributed, therefore, to an 80 per cent availability factor.

Admiral Sir William Davis, a captain serving as Deputy Director Naval Operations (Foreign) in 1941, later said:

Many of us (on the Naval Staff) would not agree with the estimate that the Japanese were only 80 per cent efficient compared with ourselves. We thought they were tactically rather rigid and also behind us in anti-submarine tactics. But frankly we knew nothing else (about their efficiency) and many of us thought it best to over-estimate rather than underestimate.

That view rings true, and fits with the cautious approach the Royal Navy took on comparative battleship performance, as well as the experience gained in submarine surveillance operations. There was also some justification for questioning IJN fighting efficiency in terms of their inability to provide the logistic and personnel support necessary for a sustained war, and the Royal Navy may have acquired at least anecdotal evidence of this. In that specific sense, the concept of an efficiency correction was defensible.

Ranking the Japanese air forces with the Italians was potentially more serious, if it implied they were an inferior opponent. It was one excuse for the chiefs of staff limiting Far East air reinforcement in terms of both numbers and quality, although it is harder to argue it was a decisive factor, given the pressures to prioritise the Middle East. It is not clear from the joint planning staff and Joint Intelligence Committee papers where the analogy with the Italians originated. It seems likely it was a Royal Air Force, more than a Royal Navy, judgement and, if so, it is difficult to judge how much it influenced Royal Navy attitudes. It may at the least have encouraged the Royal Navy to be more relaxed than was justified about the air threat to operations in the South China Sea in late 1941, and to pose fewer questions about IJN carrier power. While these comparisons with the Italian air force are viewed as pejorative (and this was undoubtedly intended by the joint planning staff), the Royal Navy, certainly Cunningham and Somerville, had learned to treat the Italian air force with respect in the central Mediterranean.

By late 1941 the Italians had achieved significant successes. For example, they had torpedoed four heavy cruisers, with varying degrees of damage, in four separate incidents between September 1940 and July 1941. They had regularly attacked the fleet in Alexandria and conducted very disruptive mining operations in the Suez Canal. Finally, they had torpedoed and severely damaged the battleship Nelson during Operation Halberd, a convoy to resupply Malta run from Gibraltar in late September 1941, just two months before the Force Z operation. Ironically, Prince of Wales was part of the battleship escort, shooting down two Italian torpedo bombers. In his memoirs, Cunningham was unequivocal about the high quality of Italian air performance at sea during the first part of the war. He stated that they appeared to have some squadrons ‘specially trained for anti-ship work’; their reconnaissance was ‘highly efficient’ and ‘seldom failed to find and report our ships’; ‘bombers then invariably arrived in an hour or two’; ‘Italian high level bombing was the best I have ever seen, far better than the German’. This experience with Italian air performance at sea would surely have tempered any Royal Navy inclination to be complacent about IJNAF aircraft in Indochina if it had been recognised they were armed with torpedoes, and available intelligence on their range had been properly absorbed.

Overall, the Royal Navy’s picture of IJN capability, while it missed the impact of the ‘revolution’ in its approach to air power in 1941, was otherwise balanced and realistic. None of the key documents from 1937 onward show significant inclination to dismiss IJN fighting power, or to contemplate a major engagement except on ‘favourable terms’. One final issue deserves mention. Churchill told the First Lord, A V Alexander, in September 1940 that ‘The NID are very much inclined to exaggerate Japanese strength and efficiency’. This quote has been much repeated over the years and become part of the case against Churchill in assigning responsibility for the loss of Force Z. There are two points to make here. First, the quote is not consistent with the suggestion that the Royal Navy itself consistently underestimated the IJN. Secondly, it is almost certain Churchill was recalling arguments over comparative battleship strengths when he was First Lord earlier in the year. He was frustrated that he was being asked to justify investment in additional Royal Navy build on the basis of what he felt was little more than speculation about IJN strength. Not for the first time, he was subjecting his briefers to rigorous sceptical questioning.

How far the Royal Navy applied the intelligence picture of the IJN described in shaping and executing a strategy for dealing with the naval risk posed by Japan, from mid-1941 through to the outbreak of the Far East war. The resources available to the Royal Navy to defend the eastern theatre after mid-1940, and the Royal Navy policies and doctrine that influenced how those resources were used.

Royal Navy resources for an eastern war in 1941

Britain implemented a modified New Standard naval building programme over the three fiscal years 1937–39, designed to ensure adequate parity with the combined fleets of Germany and Japan by 1942. The outbreak of the European war in September 1939 triggered substantial changes to this programme. The plethora of new wartime shipping requirements, both new build and repair, and affecting both warship and merchant shipping needs, brought an immediate slowdown to previous plans. In May 1940, in order to meet the requirement for additional Atlantic escorts, merchant ships, and urgent army needs, pre-war orders were suspended for six capital ships, one aircraft carrier, eight cruisers and ten destroyers. In practice, most of the labour effort released here was diverted to the fleet destroyer and destroyer escort programmes, raising their manpower allocation by about 55 per cent. Not only were those vessels already under construction, including those temporarily suspended, all completed within the next two years, a further eighteen fleet destroyers and forty-two Hunt class were progressively laid down after 1 June 1940 and commissioned before the end of 1942. This enhanced destroyer output released older vessels for Atlantic escort, and was critical to supporting a new Eastern Fleet in 1942.

The suspended capital ships were Howe, the final King George V, the four Lion class and Vanguard. Howe was resumed in 1941 and completed in August 1942. Vanguard was laid down in October 1941, but not completed until 1946. The Lions were later cancelled and broken up on their slips. The aircraft carrier was Indefatigable, the last of the six Illustrious class. She was resumed in 1942 and completed in May 1944. Her sister Implacable was also much delayed, and completed even later in August that year. In September 1939 the naval staff had expected Implacable and Indefatigable to be commissioned in October 1941 and June 1942 respectively. Their availability in 1942 would have made a significant contribution to the Royal Navy’s global commitments, and made the Royal Navy the strongest carrier power until late 1943. The 1940 building programme agreed over the previous winter was also savagely pruned back. The impact of these suspensions and cuts, alongside war losses, on Royal Navy strength in 1941 and 1942 is illustrated in Table below.

Source: Future Strategy paper, September 1940, and H T Lenton.

Target strengths reflect planned production following May 1940 suspension and cuts, but do not allow for war losses. Actual strengths achieved, which take account of real building rate, overseas purchases and war losses are given in brackets. The figure of thirteen capital ships for August 1940 excludes Queen Elizabeth, undergoing modernisation until early 1941.

The message from these figures for Royal Navy resources available to counter the naval risk from Japan is stark. As a result of the demands of the European war, nominal Royal Navy strength in fleet units hardly changed from the time the Far East appreciation was issued in August 1940 and the outbreak of the Far East war in December 1941. In reality, the deficit against target strength was greater than displayed in the table, because the figures omit units under repair. Two fleet carriers and one battleship were out of action for between six and twelve months in August 1941 following war damage, and a further three capital ships were out of action for between six and eighteen months in January 1942. The number of modern or modernised capital ships able to engage Axis units on equal terms never exceeded eight in this period, and was often less.

The table also fails to bring out an acute shortage of modern fleet destroyers, since the destroyer figures in the table combine the categories of fleet destroyers and destroyer escorts. The Royal Navy entered the European war in 1939 with 103 modern fleet destroyers. By August 1940 war losses had reduced this figure to eighty-seven. There was a further net fall to eighty-three in August 1941, with a small increase to eighty-five by January 1942. However, during the second half of 1941, a further thirty destroyers were, on average, unavailable owing to damage or refit, so effective strength was rarely above fifty-five. This was a quite inadequate number to meet fleet needs in three separate theatres and would be an important constraining factor in building up an eastern fleet in 1941/42. The shortage was exacerbated by the fleet destroyer suspensions ordered in May 1940, which inevitably extended the period where losses outweighed gains from build. The balance in the destroyer total in the table comprised destroyer escorts which fell into three categories: older vessels completed before 1920 to First World War design; around thirty-five old American destroyers acquired in the destroyer for bases deal in August 1940; and the new Hunt class which began commissioning in mid-1940 and reached a figure of forty-three by January 1942. The United States actually provided fifty destroyers, but around fifteen were transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and allies such as the Royal Netherlands Navy. These American vessels took around six months on average to refit for Royal Navy use and were then of only limited value – barely satisfactory as Atlantic convoy escorts. The Hunt class were originally designed for Atlantic escort, but their sea-keeping was a disappointment, and they were generally deployed in coastal escort and in the Mediterranean, where they often operated as fleet destroyers with reasonable success.

On the positive side of the balance, the Royal Navy inflicted proportionately greater damage on Germany and Italy in the period up to December 1941. While nominal Royal Navy frontline strength grew over this period, German and Italian strength in surface forces declined by about 40 per cent in each case. By end 1941, the Germans had lost one battleship, one pocket battleship, one heavy cruiser, two light cruisers and twelve fleet destroyers. They had also lost fifty-three U-boats to end August 1941, almost the total strength at the start of the war. The Italians had lost one battleship, three heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, twenty-four fleet destroyers and twenty escort destroyers. Italian submarine losses were also very heavy in this period, at thirty-eight against a total build of eighty-five between 1930 and 1942.

Even more important, by diverting building resources away from fleet units from late 1939 onward to meet the requirements of the Battle of the Atlantic with the U-boats, and judicious management of merchant ship resources, Britain substantially compensated, through a mix of new build, requisition and capture, for the 9.1 million tons of merchant shipping lost during the twenty-eight months to the end of 1941. Indeed, British-controlled shipping, comprising vessels over 1600 gross registered tons, actually rose from 17,784,000 tons at the outbreak of war in September 1939 to 20,693,000 tons at 31 December 1941. This even included a net gain in the crucial category of oil tankers of some 1.2 million tons. The Royal Navy commissioned about two hundred Atlantic escort vessels, primarily Flower-class corvettes, in addition to the destroyer escorts referred to above, across the two years 1940 and 1941, with about a third of these built in Canada. This provided a critical margin over U-boat build in this period. Britain may not have been winning the Battle of the Atlantic at the end of 1941, but it was in no immediate danger of losing. This was a far better outcome than anticipated by the chiefs of staff in the Future Strategy paper of September 1940 and their Strategic Survey prepared for the ABC-1 staff talks three months later. It demonstrated that Britain had got its immediate naval priorities right. The IJN would fail to do so. Finally, it is important to note that the Royal Navy would see a steady improvement in its overall destroyer situation in 1942. It would commission thirty-four fleet destroyers that year, more than double the numbers in 1941, and thirty-eight escort destroyers. Twenty-five fleet destroyers and eight destroyer escorts would be lost, but this still left a significant net gain in strength.

This resource picture explains why, as the Admiralty reviewed options for Far East reinforcement immediately following ABC-1, the only readily available force was Force H. This could be redeployed in emergency from Gibraltar, with the added prospect of the four ‘R’-class battleships, if and when the Americans released them from Atlantic convoy escort. Five months later, by end August, the outlook was better. Admiralty planners could anticipate a small increase in capital ship availability by the end of the year as three King George V class came available, and three Illustrious-class carriers arrived from new build and repair. So long as there were no further losses, this would allow a defensive force of modern units to be established in the Indian Ocean by spring 1942, even without full US Navy ‘Atlantic substitution’ and relief of Force H. This resource situation underpinned the dispositions which the First Sea Lord presented to the prime minister in their correspondence in the last week of August.

The result of neglect and ignorance!

Royal Navy Readiness for a War with Japan in Mid-1941: Intelligence and Capability III

Royal Navy air capability in 1941

The Royal Navy required a strategy for dealing with Japan that took realistic account of its available resources in 1941. However, it also needed to apply the right capabilities and fighting tactics. Here, understanding the new potential of air power at sea and applying the lessons of the war to date was particularly important. The Fleet Air Arm entered the European war with obsolescent aircraft, and also faced low priority for development and production. Once the war got underway, a combination of prioritisation by the Ministry of Aircraft Production on key Royal Air Force types, procurement mismanagement and shifting operational requirements caused development of the new generation fighter and strike aircraft ordered in 1939 and 1940 to move painfully slowly.

Of the three aircraft taken forward, none ultimately reached service until 1943. Only one then proved operationally adequate, albeit not in its intended role. They were the Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber, the advanced next generation torpedo strike reconnaissance (TSR) aircraft to replace the Albacore and Swordfish; the Fairey Firefly specification N 8/39 two-seater escort fighter to replace the Fulmar; and the Blackburn Firebrand high-performance single seat fighter. The failure of the Barracuda was partly owing to the cancellation of the advanced Exe engine by the Ministry of Aircraft Production in 1940 to concentrate on other engine priorities. This was a decision beyond the Royal Navy’s control, but it led to substantial and unsatisfactory redesign. The development of the Firefly was inhibited by changing perceptions of fighter requirements and the best means of meeting these. It eventually proved a useful aircraft, but as a fighter-bomber and night-fighter rather than mainstream dayfighter, where it could not compete with contemporary US Navy fighters. It was not fully operational until 1944. The Firebrand was a high-performance single-seat fighter able to take on land-based aircraft, but was fatally compromised by hasty design and too many conflicting requirements.

The Norwegian campaign persuaded the Fleet Air Arm that its most critical need was a dedicated naval fighter with sufficient performance to counter the latest land-based strike aircraft and their escorting fighters. Experiments here with radar-assisted fighter direction emphasised the desirability of an agile aircraft able to gain height and distance quickly for interception. The first Royal Navy radar-controlled interception at sea occurred on 23 April 1940, using the converted anti-aircraft cruiser Curlew as a radar picket. The Norway experience also demonstrated the potential for integrating new technology: radar, lightweight VHF communications (which were far ahead of the US Navy) and radio homing. Essentially, the Fleet Air Arm was now reaching for a ‘Battle of Britain’ fighter defence concept, based on new perceptions of the threat and available technology. Two factors, therefore, came together here to drive a fundamental shift in fighter philosophy: the threat from high-speed aircraft and the technical means to counter this threat with carrier-based fighters, using the emerging Royal Air Force fighter direction techniques.

The result was the specification of the new Firebrand single-seat fighter in July 1940, and the decision to meet the gap before the Firebrand’s arrival by ordering the Grumman F4F Wildcat from the United States, which the Royal Navy named the Martlet. This followed an extensive debate over how to reconcile the traditional requirement for a long-range escort fighter to support carrier strike forces, which in the Fleet Air Arm view required a dedicated navigator as well as pilot, and the new need to defend the fleet against high performance attackers, where equivalent fighter performance was needed, implying single seat and acceptance of shorter range. The Admiralty continued to worry about the difficulties a single-seat fighter might face with navigation until well into 1941. The initial conclusion was that two aircraft were needed. By September 1941 it was already clear the Firebrand was well behind schedule and could not be operational before mid-1943.

Meanwhile, deploying the interim Martlet from Royal Navy carriers posed a problem. Without folding wings, none of the lifts in Ark Royal or the first three Illustrious class were large enough to accommodate them. The solution was to ask Grumman to produce a folding wing variant and eventually to adopt the US Navy practice of deck parking. Because of these limitations, the first Wildcats delivered were used in a land-based role for the defence of Scapa Flow. Designing and producing a folding wing took much longer than hoped, and the Admiralty briefly considered undertaking the work in the United Kingdom. In early 1941 it expected the folding wing variant to begin arriving in the middle of the year, but this proved wildly optimistic. Nevertheless, at the end of 1941, the Royal Navy still assessed the Wildcat the best naval fighter in the world. Trials had by now shown that it was more manoeuvrable than a Hurricane I, was faster at all heights up to 15,000ft, and climbed better too. The Royal Navy ordered 100 aircraft in July 1940, 150 more in December 1940 and 200 in October 1941. It appears a further eighty-one were taken over from French orders in mid-1940. Grumman had originally promised delivery of twenty aircraft per month from late 1940, sufficient to equip the Fleet Air Arm frontline fighter force by the following autumn. This would have given Royal Navy carriers broadly the same fighter capability as the US Navy in confronting the IJN in late 1941 and in 1942. The US Navy had initially selected the Brewster Buffalo as its preferred naval fighter, but switched to the Wildcat in mid-1941, partly on the basis of British experience. The Wildcat then remained its primary naval fighter throughout 1942. The Buffalo, as we have seen, became the mainstay of British fighter defence in Malaya.

However, by the end of 1941 Grumman had delivered less than half the numbers contracted and paid for and, crucially, none had the folding wings, essential to the Royal Navy, which Grumman had also promised. Churchill, who monitored the Fleet Air Arm fighter problem throughout 1941, described this as ‘a melancholy story’. In September that year, in typical fashion, he cut to the heart of the issue. ‘All this year it has been apparent that the power to launch the highest class fighters from aircraft carriers may re-open to the Fleet great strategic doors which have been closed against them.’ He instructed that – ‘the aircraft carrier should have priority in the quality and character of suitable (aircraft) types’. The latter was, of course, easy to say, but much harder to deliver. The US Navy, by then also acquiring Wildcats, blamed the delays on acute shortages of materials across the US aircraft industry, owing to concentration on the four-engine bomber programme.

The end of 1941, therefore, found the Fleet Air Arm badly let down by American industry and desperately trying to plug its fighter gap through stopgap adaptations of the Hurricane and Spitfire, neither of which were really suitable for carrier operation. Once it became clear that Wildcat deliveries would be delayed, 270 Hurricanes were released to the Fleet Air Arm between February and May 1941. Inevitably, some of these Royal Air Force releases were of poor quality. Alexander again summarised the status of Fleet Air Arm procurement for the prime minister in early December. He explained why the Hurricane and Spitfire, although necessary as stopgaps, were inherently unsuitable for carrier operation. It remained essential to maximise Wildcat supplies until new British naval fighters were available, but supplies could only be assured by asking the United States to prioritise naval fighter over heavy bomber production. Despite Alexander’s insistence that the Spitfire was unsuitable, it appears that the possibility of converting Spitfires for carrier use, including the provision of folding wings, was considered as early as February 1940, but was ruled out at this time because of the impact on Fighter Command requirements. The idea was then resurrected in September 1941, technical issues were resolved by January 1942, and an initial order placed for 250 aircraft, by now designated the Seafire. The modification of the Spitfire for naval use inevitably still took time, and the first twenty-eight aircraft were not delivered until July 1942. At that point, deliveries were expected to run at twenty-five per month and by late August the initial order for 250 was expanded to 452 for the end of 1943. This reflected the view by then that the Firebrand would have to be abandoned.

Given the delay to the Barracuda, the Fleet Air Arm also considered the merits of purchasing strike aircraft from the United States. The current US Navy torpedo bomber, the Douglas Devastator, offered no significant performance advantage over the Swordfish or its Albacore successor, which began coming into service in 1940. The US Navy did have an excellent dive-bomber in the Douglas Dauntless SBD2, but the Royal Navy had long chosen to prioritise torpedo attack over dive-bombing, and its carriers had insufficient capacity to carry reasonable numbers of both types. There is a compelling argument here that the US Navy ended up prioritising the dive-bomber because its aerial torpedoes did not work satisfactorily. By contrast, the Royal Navy had excellent torpedoes. The Fleet Air Arm was, however, impressed with the forthcoming Grumman TBF Avenger, which would prove the outstanding naval strike aircraft of the war. Two hundred were ordered in late 1941 under lend-lease, but did not reach the Royal Navy until 1943.

This background meant that until well into 1942, the Fleet Air Arm was largely dependent on obsolete biplane strike aircraft dating from the mid-1930s and a more modern fighter of interim design, the Fulmar, introduced in 1940. Indomitable, completed in autumn 1941 with larger lifts and extra hangar space, was equipped with Hurricanes from the start, while modifications to Illustrious and Formidable in the United States in late 1941 enabled them to deploy Wildcats when they rejoined the fleet at the end of the year. While they were not competitive with the latest IJN and US Navy carrier aircraft, the limitations of the standard British Fleet Air Arm types can be overstated. The Fulmar, as primary fighter from 1940, could not match a Zero for speed or manoeuvrability, but it was still quite fast enough to catch the most modern loaded strike aircraft, and had other advantages both as an interceptor and reconnaissance aircraft. It was more robust than a Zero, could dive at 400mph (faster than almost all contemporaries and a speed which would cause a Zero to break up), had a four-hour endurance, and was an excellent gun platform with large ammunition capacity (which was a Zero weakness), all of which, when allied to radar control, made it a useful defensive fighter.

The Swordfish and Albacore torpedo bombers had reasonable range, a good communications fit, were married to an excellent torpedo, and their biplane manoeuvrability was an advantage in marginal flying weather. The Fleet Air Arm torpedo here was the 18in Mark XII introduced in 1940. Contrary to the impression often given that the Royal Navy was backward in aerial torpedo capability, the Mark XII could be dropped at up to 200ft (61m) and 150 knots, making it easily comparable to the IJN Type 91. It also had two speed options, an excellent warhead and the option of an advanced detonating pistol, the duplex magnetic proximity fuse. In addition, it had gyro-angling so the attacking aircraft could offset, rather than flying direct at the target.

The Fleet Air Arm’s Swordfish and Albacore torpedo bombers could not match their IJN counterparts for speed and range, but compensated through their ability to operate at night or in bad weather, and they had high reliability. It is doubtful either IJN or US Navy aircraft could have taken off in the conditions prevailing in Ark Royal on 26 May for the crucial attack on the Bismarck. In addition, from early 1941 significant numbers were fitted with ASV air surface search radar, giving them a night and bad weather search and attack capability which neither the IJN nor US Navy could match. The first airborne radar sets, known as ASV 1, were deployed in Fleet Air Arm aircraft in late 1939, but were fragile and unreliable. The much improved ASV 2, with an effective range of about 15 miles to detect a medium-sized warship, began to be deployed in early 1941. The 825 Squadron embarked in the new carrier Victorious were entirely ASV 2-equipped, and this facilitated their night attack on Bismarck on 24 May. Some aircraft in Ark Royal were also equipped, enabling them to operate against Bismarck in the atrocious weather prevailing two days later. Judged, therefore, as an overall weapon system, the Fleet Air Arm torpedo bombers were effective and competitive.

By the autumn of 1941, despite the limitations of its aircraft both in numbers and quality, the Royal Navy carrier fleet had achieved notable operational successes across different theatres and under different commanders, amply demonstrating that the Royal Navy was definitely not tied to a conservative battleship mentality. One measure here is that the Royal Navy had sunk or disabled five modern or modernised capital ships through aerial torpedo attack by end May 1941. At Taranto in November 1940, just eleven Fleet Air Arm Swordfish sank or disabled three modern or modernised Italian battleships, while eighty-nine IJN B5N2s were required to sink or disable five older US Navy battleships in the first-wave attack at Pearl Harbor. While the IJN is invariably credited with sinking the first capital units at sea (Prince of Wales and Repulse), the Fleet Air Arm had previously disabled a modern German battleship at sea (Bismarck) and come close to disabling another, the modern Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto, at Matapan. They had also severely disabled the new French battleship Richelieu at Dakar on 8 July 1940.

The Royal Navy had also completed more modern carriers than either the IJN or US Navy, even if, for all the reasons discussed, it badly lagged both in the number and quality of frontline aircraft, together with trained and experienced crews. By autumn 1941 the Royal Navy had completed five large modern fleet carriers, against four by the IJN, and three by the US Navy. The IJN and the US Navy had also each completed a single light carrier earlier in the 1930s. Despite all its procurement problems and heavy wartime attrition, frontline air strength had almost doubled in size after two years of war, and it would continue grow steadily into 1942. Relevant figures here are as follows:

Aircraft reserves by autumn 1941 were also substantial compared to those of the IJNAF. At the end of September 1941, alongside the frontline strength recorded above, there were 141 strike aircraft and seventy-two fighters allocated to training, a further 540 and 335 respectively in general reserve and fifty-seven and fifty-five in transit.

The Royal Navy nevertheless had to divide its carrier fleet across four theatres, Atlantic, the two ends of the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean, and the initiation of the Russian convoys from late 1941 effectively added a fifth theatre, the Arctic. This made it impossible further to explore and train for the multi-carrier operations and mass strike tactics which the Royal Navy had investigated in the 1930s, and which the IJN developed so assiduously during 1941. In theory, this left it poorly placed to handle a mass carrier engagement of the Coral Sea or Midway type, which the IJN and US Navy would experience in mid-1942. However, by mid-1941 the Royal Navy had made innovations which partly compensated for lack of numbers and quality of aircraft. Both the US Navy and IJN had embraced an operational philosophy based on the single massive strike, which made it difficult to manage the more flexible flying cycle required to handle the competing tasks and demands of a multi-threat environment. The Royal Navy, by contrast, emphasised operational flexibility with rapid switches of aircraft tasking. The evolution of this sophisticated multi-role flying cycle is well illustrated in some of the reports on Force H operations by Vice Admiral Somerville as early as autumn 1940. These show the execution of techniques and tactics, including radar pickets, which would still be in use in the 1960s, and were quite beyond US Navy and IJN capability at that time.